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Critical Event Support with SISC - Self Insured Schools of California-

Planning, coping, and recovery resources when tragedy strikes.

Supervisors Can Help Ease Employees' Grief

Mourning doesn't have to be an awkward topic.

Some supervisors understand the mourning process. They are patient when grieving employees are forgetful and kind when they cry. Going home early or getting time off to be with family isn't a problem. Their sensitivity to what the employee is going through allows the employee to continue at their job during one of their most difficult times.

Unfortunately, this experience is far from common. Even as companies nationwide bend over backward to help employees manage their family and personal lives, dealing with grieving employees remains among the most avoided workplace topics. If you've ever found yourself going the other way to dodge someone who's grieving, you're not alone.

Costly Blunders

Why do people have so much trouble comforting colleagues who've suffered a loss? One reason may be the fear of death, and when it touches a colleague, it can be a reminder of their own mortality. Because death is such a taboo subject, people may not be sure what to say when faced with a grieving person. Coworkers who'll freely discuss intimate relationships become tongue-tied for fear of saying the wrong thing. So they do nothing—and sadly, this is the worst choice, because it sends a message that they don't care.

Imagine how you'd feel if your parent died, and nobody at the office where you've worked for years said anything about the loss. Blunders such as these are costly, personally and professionally. It's particularly important that supervisors be knowledgeable about the grief process and show sensitivity and compassion for the bereaved. Most workers feel that bosses, rather than a company policy, set the tone for a workplace response to grief. Below are some key points for supervisors.

Suggestions for Supervisors

Communicate.

Notifying staff is critical. Managers who learn about a death in a coworker's family should ask permission to notify colleagues as well as what information the family wishes to disclose or keep private. As you seek this permission, resist the urge to probe for details. You may want to designate a person to disseminate information about memorial services.

Why should you avoid leaving notification to the grapevine? Picture this break room scene: A person asks a colleague who's been off on maternity leave to see baby pictures. However, the newborn died.

Acknowledge the loss.

It's important to personally acknowledge the death that has occurred. This can be a simple "I'm sorry," a handwritten note on a desk, or flowers. It shows you care about your colleague as a person. Also, permit coworkers to attend the funeral, organize whatever company support is available, and arrange for flowers or other appropriate acknowledgment from the office as a whole. These gestures are never forgotten.

Understand grief.

Supervisors tend to impose unspoken deadlines for healing, but it's important to understand that grief is rarely tidy, and the grieving process is rarely quick. Be patient. Give your colleague the time needed to adjust to the loss. People tend to experience grief in stages—denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance—but the stages don't always follow in this order, and they can take time to work through. Be supportive as your colleague deals with the difficult emotions of grief.

Remember that returning to work doesn't mean the grieving process is over. Everyone grieves in their own way, in their own time. Grief over the loss of a loved one can hit with such staggering force that the ability to work is altered for months or years. In some cases, a grieving worker may find solace in returning to work and appear almost normal for a while, only to fall deeper into grief months later.

Be flexible.

Communicate with team members about what has happened and figure out ways to share the load until the grieving person returns to full strength. One suggestion is to get the team together and explain the need to compensate for a member who's grieving, to be sensitive about work demands, and to understand that it will take time for the person to get back to full productivity.

If you can, ease the workload for grieving colleagues so they can go home early, or offer time off when colleagues are too grief-stricken to be effective. Failure to allow extra time for grieving when it's needed can hurt an employee's long-term productivity. One grieving person said that going back to work too soon rendered her incapable of giving the job the attention it required. Another person said this: "It would have been nice if they had trusted me to come in and do the essentials, then leave when I needed to."

As a supervisor, you may feel torn between showing compassion and protecting the bottom line. As difficult as it may be to disrupt work schedules or put extra burdens on coworkers, the alternative can be worse.

Denying an employee compassion and adequate time to grieve may complicate and slow the healing process. This can be a prescription for rendering an effective worker incapable or risking the loss of a productive and loyal employee.

Kelly, L. (Revised 2023 [Ed.]). Supervisors can help ease employees' grief (H. Morgan, Ed.). Raleigh, NC: Workplace Options.

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