It’s more than likely that one of your employees will experience a loss at some point. Death, illness, and grief are all natural, unavoidable parts of life. Dealing with grief at work, however, can present a myriad of challenges for everyone in a workplace. For the aggrieved person, many who have experienced loss feel like they need to balance the expectations and obligations of their job while also processing their sadness. For that person’s coworkers, it can be difficult to navigate the question of how to offer comfort without overstepping or violating someone’s privacy.
We can never completely protect ourselves or those around us from loss. But we can – as managers, coworkers, and employees – work to build a culture at our company that avoids further burdening bereaved workers, that supports each and every person through their darkest times. Here are a couple tips to remember when someone in your workplace is dealing with grief:
Grief Can Take Many Forms
We often think of bereavement in terms of the death of a loved one. However, it’s important to remember that people can experience grief for numerous reasons. The diagnosis of an illness, a miscarriage, or a divorce are all challenging experiences that can cause feelings of anxiety and sadness. When we conceptualize grief solely based on the death of a close family member, we ignore all the other reasons people can experience pain. By broadening our view of what grief is, we can better support those in our workplace who are going through a difficult time for whatever reason.
Develop a Compassionate Bereavement Leave Policy
Offering bereavement leave for aggrieved employees is a common practice, with almost 90% companies offering some bereavement policy as of 2018. This leave is usually reserved for those who have lost a loved one, with the amount of leave offered averaging around 3 to 5 days. These policies are a step in the right direction, though they often do not go far enough. It can take far longer than 3 to 5 days to process a major life event. Giving bereaved employees a few days of leave and then expecting them to return to work at full capacity is unrealistic, and can leave them feeling overlooked by their company.
In recent years, several companies have begun developing a more compassionate approach to bereavement leave. At Facebook, where COO Sheryl Sanberg has talked openly about dealing with the grief of her husband’s passing, employees are now offered up to 20 days of paid leave following the loss of a loved one. In 2012, Google made headlines by offering to pay half of a dead employee’s salary to their spouse for a decade after the employee’s passing. While not every company has the resources of Google or Facebook, smaller businesses have found other ways to improve their bereavement policies. Some companies now offer grief counseling services for bereaved employees. Others have established Employee Assistance Funds, where employees can make donations matched by the company to be used for funeral or medical expenses for bereaved workers. When thinking about a bereavement policy for your company, try to create one that offers as much support as possible.
Have a Conversation About Grief
Loss is a scary thing. It’s natural to want to avoid discussing death in our everyday lives. But this natural tendency can lead us to clam up around coworkers who have recently experienced a loss. By never acknowledging grief and carrying on as if everything were normal, we risk isolating our coworkers during what is already an extremely lonely experience.
This is, to be sure, a fine line to walk. On the flip side, you don’t want to make things worse by talking about the loss with a grieving coworker who doesn’t want to discuss it. The way to solve this problem is with clear and open communication. One person from the team – most likely the manager – should discreetly ask the bereaved person how the team and the rest of the company can support them: Would they like to take time off? Do they want others to know about their loss?
Everybody grieves in their own way. Some people will want to take time off, while others may choose to deal with their grief by continuing work and maintaining old routines (If they do want to take time off, make it clear that they won’t be expected to perform at their prior levels immediately upon returning). Some people will appreciate a card signed by the entire office, while others may want to keep their loss private. By asking a bereaved coworker directly what their preferences are, you can ensure that the process is as simple and easy as possible for them.
Create a Culture of Care At Your Company
Having a difficult conversation about grief can be a lot easier if you already have a culture at your company that values the feelings of its employees. A culture of care brings people closer together and makes them more comfortable relying on one another during difficult times. Building a culture takes time and patience, but there are a couple things you can do to get the ball rolling. One idea is to offer a space where employees can relax and interact with each other outside of the normal context of work. In a physical office, this often takes the form of a break room or some common area. For companies working in a virtual model, you could instead try an after hours virtual happy hour. During work, some teams open team meetings by gauging how everyone is feeling on that day. Measures like these bring people together and show that their team really does care about how they’re feeling.