How to deal with death and grieving in the workplace

Death is one of the few certainties in life. Yet it’s a subject most people are uncomfortable dealing with and talking about. And when it comes to dealing with death in a work environment – an employee losing a spouse, for example – it can be a situation most managers and co-workers would rather avoid.

Most workplaces have guidelines to follow in the event of the death of an employee’s family member; particularly in terms of leave time. (According to the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Paid Leave in the Workplace Survey , most U.S. employers that provide bereavement leave allow only two to four days off depending on whether the deceased is a child, spouse, parent or extended family member. That number is starting to change – after the death of Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s husband in 2015, Facebook began allowing up to 20 days bereavement, and other companies are beginning to follow suit.)

But when it comes to the emotional aspect of death and knowing how to support a grieving employee, things can be a little less straightforward.

There is probably nothing more common to us as humans than grief. Yet it’s an emotion the work sector seems least prepared to handle. Grief has no time limit, so whether an employee is back in the office after two days or 20, he or she will likely still be dealing with some tough emotions, meaning those around them will be dealing with some tough emotions too. What can you do to support them?

When it happens:

  • If your employee learned about the death while at work, help them pack up so they can leave immediately. Offer a ride or call a cab if they’re too shaken to drive, and assure them that you will take care of any loose ends after they leave.
  • Be flexible. Everyone reacts differently to death and grieving. If possible, adapt company policy on leave time to fit the circumstances, and let your employee know that work is the last thing he or she should worry about right now.
  • Keep your staff informed and involved. Let other employees know what’s happened (but respect privacy and only share details your employee is comfortable with sharing). Arrange for a group sympathy card and/or flowers or donation to charity in memoriam.
  • Organize the workload. Take inventory of the employee’s projects and duties and reassign as necessary to ensure work doesn’t get missed and the employee doesn’t need to worry about falling behind or letting the team down

When they return:

  • Offer resources. If it’s clear your employee is still deep in the grieving process, let them know there are support to help them deal with their grief. Provide them a list of resources you think can help, like grief counselling and other services.
  • Help others understand what to do. Talk to other staff members about the situation, emphasizing the need for patience and understanding. Suggest ways they can provide support. Depending on the employee, it could be an invitation to coffee or it could be allowing them their space.
  • Arrange for checkpoints so you can assess how the employee is doing after returning to work. Remember that the process is different for everyone, so be patient if your employee’s performance is less than 100 per cent; but do be on the lookout for red flags and prepare to step in if it seems your employee continues to have difficulty coping.
  • Be sensitive to milestones and triggers. Even months after a death, certain things can set off emotions. A birthday, a wedding anniversary, and even dark humour can suddenly overwhelm a person who’s lost someone, so be aware of and patient with new sensitivities.


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