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Managing Grief and Loss At Work: A Guide for Employees & Managers

Grief is universal and one of the most painful things we’ll experience in our lifetime. The loss of a loved one impacts each aspect of our lives. Yet, we rarely address grief in the workplace. Most organizations don’t account for how grieving at work impacts employee engagement and wellness.

A difficult part of grief is getting back a sense of normalcy, including returning to work after experiencing a loss. Grieving at work is challenging, and it can be difficult for employees to feel like themselves.  It can also be challenging for colleagues and managers to know how to support grieving employees.

Beyond paid time off, our work culture has no standard for dealing with our grief at work or supporting employees who’ve suffered a loss. However, caring for our mental health and supporting employees can make grieving at work less challenging. In honor of National Grief Awareness Day on August 30th, 2021, the following guide includes ways employees can cope with grief at work and how managers can support bereft employees. 

Why Grieving at Work Is Difficult

After experiencing a loss, grief can feel like a full-time job. Delayed grief can also occur, especially if bereavement leave was focused on planning services and funeral arrangements instead of managing emotions. Sometimes, we find ourselves returning to work just as we begin to grieve the loss of a loved one. For some, work is a welcome distraction, but for most, the full-time work of grief can leave you feeling sad and unproductive.

Returning to work while grieving may feel overwhelming. Minor things can remind you of your loss, bringing on feelings of sadness and even tears throughout the day. Suffering a loss can take a toll on our motivation levels, too. Things that used to be important may not feel so urgent or pressing anymore. 

Between managing job responsibilities and mourning, grief at work can be stressful and exhausting. We may become frustrated by our grief and want to return to normal. Working while grieving is complex, and it will change as you adjust to the loss of your loved one.

How to Manage Stress and Grief at Work

If you’re returning to work after a loss, you’ll need to prepare yourself for the challenges of grieving at work. Experiencing grief in the workplace isn’t easy— but you can take steps to make the process more manageable. 

Adjust Expectations 

You might not feel like yourself for a while after experiencing a loss. Adjust expectations of yourself at work to reduce stress while you come to terms with your loss. You may not be as productive or focused on the job, and that’s okay. 

Discuss your loss with your manager and tell them how you’re doing once you return from bereavement leave. Being honest about how you’re coping will help them to better support you. 

Determine Your Needs For Support & Privacy 

Set expectations around privacy with your manager as well. Coworkers and leadership may want to notify your team members of your loss. While grieving, condolences from colleagues can be a great source of support and allow others to adjust their expectations of you at work. However, some may find it challenging to be reminded of their loss unexpectedly by coworkers.

Determine your comfort level with team members knowing about your grief and communicate that to your manager. Talk to your HR department about employee mental health benefits and grief support resources if you want to receive support privately. 

Be Honest and Honor Your Feelings

Sometimes, we feel the need to hide our grief at work. We may experience denial about the loss or just want to return to normal. However, ignoring grief won’t stop it from happening; it will only delay the recovery process. 

Be honest with yourself and honor your feelings about the loss. As you move through the stages of grief, you will feel a range of emotions, like sorrow and anger. Try not to place judgment on these feelings, and simply let yourself process the emotion. 

Make Time For Yourself & Your Grief at Work

Grief is fluid, and it will change over time. However, when you experience a loss, grief can be ever-present in your life, and work is no exception. Therefore, when you first return to work, you may need to be intentional about taking breaks to feel your emotions fully. Setting aside dedicated time in your workday to grieve and process your feelings can help manage grief at work. 

 

"Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”

 – Vicki Harrison

 

How to Support Grieving Employees

For managers, knowing what to say is the hardest part of supporting an employee who’s grieving. Instead of trying to find the right words to express your sympathies, acknowledge your employee’s loss by being flexible and understanding. Having open conversations about their loss and temporarily lightening their workload can help reduce the challenges of grieving at work. 

Offer Support and Respect Privacy 

When they inform you of the loss, ask if they’d like you to inform team members. Privacy during grief is just as important as support. Some employees may not want to share their loss just yet, while others may want to hear from their coworkers.

Make Their Return From Bereavement Easier

If your employee takes bereavement leave, see how you can shift their workload around to make their return to work easier. It’s essential to adjust your expectations for grieving employees as it may take them a while to readjust to work. Having a lighter workload will help ease their transition back to work and shows them your support. 

Plan to Check-in About How They’re Coping 

When employees return, plan to touch base with them about how they’re feeling. These check-ins can happen on their first day back from bereavement leave, a week after they’ve returned, and a month or so after their loved one passed. Grief is different for everyone— one employee may find the first week to be the toughest, while another may not struggle for a while if ever.  

Help for Those Struggling With Grief

Grief is always difficult, but seeking and offering support can help make grieving at work less challenging. In light of National Grief Awareness Day on August 30th, consider taking steps to create a more supportive work environment for employees experiencing grief. 

If you or a coworker is experiencing grief, you can find a support group near you by calling the SAMHSA National Hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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