Managers Guide: Supporting Employees Through Bereavement at Work

Managers can support employees going through grief and loss by being understanding and providing flexibility in their work schedules. It’s also important for managers to have open and honest communication with the employee, providing a safe space to express their current needs and discuss any challenges they may face. Remember loss comes from many sources, not just the death of a loved one. Experiences such as divorce or an intimate breakup, an adult child setting distancing boundaries, financial loss, relocation, and infertility– all are losses that can greatly affect people. 

For any significant loss, managers can provide resources to support their employees, such as counseling through their EAP. Managers need to remember that everyone processes grief differently, and to be patient and understanding as employees navigate their emotions. Some employees need significant time off or a lighter schedule, while others may find solace in the distraction of work and the structure of keeping the same routine. It is important to never assume the details of someone else’s grief journey. Remember to ask them, “What does support feel like to you?” 

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Complicated Grief

The last several years have brought an unprecedented number of deaths from unnatural, often traumatic, causes. Not only have people lost loved ones to the natural causes of aging or chronic disease, but also to complications of COVID, accidental overdose, suicide, natural disasters, and gun violence, to name only some. Such deaths can cause complicated grief, that is, grief that persists and disrupts day-to-day functioning. Some people experience disenfranchised grief stemming from a loss that can be stigmatized (e.g., suicide, overdose) or not recognized (e.g., miscarriage, sexual assault).  These grief experiences often require professional mental health intervention. This uptick in collective loss has left us fragile and often desensitized. When an unexpected or traumatic loss at work comes on top of all this other loss, employees may experience symptoms of complicated grief, such as heightened anxiety, sleep problems, and poor concentration.  Some employees may experience trauma symptoms such as intrusive thoughts and images or hypervigilance. 

Communicate and Acknowledge Your Employees Loss

As a manager, it is important to acknowledge the loss and show compassion, remembering again that each person has their own needs around their grief journey. Using a trauma Informed care approach guarantees that we provide safety, listen deeply to employees’ words and their body language, reflect our understanding of their experience as best we can, and invite them to collaborate with us on how best to navigate their current and future needs. A flexible approach with bereaved employees will allow reasonable adjustments to expectations; one size does not fit all. 

There are several things managers can do to help an employee who is grieving: 

  • Be understanding and flexible: Allow the employee the flexibility to take time off or work from home if needed, and be understanding if their work performance may be affected.
  • Communicate openly: Take time to speak with your employees in a safe space.  Encourage the employee to express their needs, and allow space for them to express emotions and talk about their grief if they are so led.  Deep listening and even silence are comforting.  The “being with” another in grief is most important. Stay away from words that take away someone’s experience such as “at least they’re at peace now”. 
  • Remember to ask “What does support look like for you?” and then provide accommodations and resources: Direct your employee to internal resources to help the employee cope with their loss (eg. grief counselors, EAP, bereavement benefits) 
  • Show empathy: Demonstrate empathy and understanding, and be patient as the employee navigates their grief.

Most losses are eventually integrated and adapted into new meanings and routines of life. However, everyone processes grief differently, so it's important to be patient and understanding as the employee manages their emotions. Keep a tab on how the employee is navigating their grief journey.  If they are experiencing signs of complicated grief and/or if the loss has not been well accepted and may be “disenfranchised” by others, the employee may need more resources, more time, and more support than persons whose losses are more easily integrated into future functioning. 

Responding to Death by Suicide in the Workplace

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When communicating about suicide with your employees, it is important to approach the topic with sensitivity and compassion. Organizational leaders should allow time and space during the workday to talk to the team members as a group and individually. 

When discussing suicide, it is important to use non-judgmental language and avoid language that might blame the individual or make them feel ashamed. Using natural phrases like “died by suicide” or “suicide attempt” avoids perpetuating the stigma of suicide. It is also important to emphasize that seeking help is a sign of strength and to provide information about available resources such as counseling services or hotlines. 

It can be challenging to know how to respond after a suicide in the workplace. Move forward by giving employees time and space to process the incident and move through their grief.  How the workplace responds and talks about mental health can mean the difference between seeking help and suffering in silence. 

The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached by calling or texting 988.  It is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. When you call, text, or chat at 988, you will be connected to a trained counselor.  These trained counselors are available to listen, provide support, and connect you to additional resources if necessary.

The Benefits of Empathic Responding to Grief and Loss

Supporting employees through bereavement gives the message that the workplace culture is psychologically safe enough for people to  say, “You know I thought I was doing all right with my traumatic loss and I realize that I'm having a rough patch.” 

Organizations that give room for such vulnerability, belonging, and psychological safety, are supporting employees at a level that motivates them to stay at the organization. They feel taken care of. Their experience is understood and valued, and they have an outlet for their vulnerability. That is really what's important in terms of any kind of trauma or significant loss that happens in the workplace or the individual lives of employees. 

Pathways at Work can lay the foundation for healthy strategies for responding to loss and impactful life challenges with a custom-built workplace mental health program. A proactive approach to helping employees navigate their journey through life's challenges can ensure your organization thrives. Contact us to find out how you can implement a mental health wellbeing program at your organization

 

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