When Grief Comes to Work
By Kathryn Schneider, LPC, CEAP, EAP Consultant, Benefit Solutions Division, Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company, a UBA Strategic Partner
Death and loss touch all of us, usually many times throughout our lives. Yet we may feel unprepared and uncomfortable when grief intrudes into our daily routines. As a manager, when grief impacts your employees it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of what they are going through as well as ways you can help.
Although we all experience grief in our own way, there are behaviors, emotions and physical sensations that are a common part of the mourning process. J. William Worden’s “Four Tasks of Mourning” will be experienced in some form by anyone who is grieving. These tasks include accepting the reality of the loss, experiencing and accepting our emotions, adjusting to life without the loved one, and investing emotional energy into a new and different life.
Commonly experienced emotions are sadness, anger, frustration, guilt, shock and numbness. Physical sensations include fatigue or weakness, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and dry mouth.
When employees are mourning, it’s important to create a caring, supportive and professional work environment. In most cases, employees will benefit from returning to work. It allows them to resume a regular routine, focus on something besides their loss and boost their confidence by completing work tasks.
At the same time, bereaved employees may experience many challenges when returning to work. They may have poor concentration, be extremely tired, feel depressed or have a short temper and uncontrollable emotions.
As a manager, the best thing you can do is acknowledge the loss and maintain strong lines of communication. Even if you believe someone else is checking in with them, make sure you stay in touch and see if there is anything you can do.
Developing a Return to Work Plan
In order to help your employees have a smooth transition back to work you must listen and understand their needs. Some additional questions you’ll want to answer are:
- What are your company’s policies and procedures for medical and bereavement leave?
- What information do your employees want their co-workers to have and would they rather share this information themselves?
- Do they want to talk about their experience or would they rather focus on work?
- Do they need private time while at work?
- Does their workload and schedule need to be adjusted?
- Do they need help at home – child care, meals, house work, etc.?
- Are there others at work that may be experiencing grief of their own?
Helpful Responses for Managers
- Offer specific help – make meals, wash their car, walk their pet, or anything else that will make their life easier.
- Say something – it can be as simple as, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
- Listen – be kind but honest.
- Respect privacy – honor closed doors and private moments.
- Expect tears – emotions can hit unexpectedly.
- Thank your staff – for everything they are doing to help.
Grieving is a necessity, not a weakness. It is how we heal and move forward. As a manager, being there for your employees during this time is important in helping them through the grieving process.
An Employee Assistance Program is a great resource for both you and your employees when grief comes to work.