Supporting Bereaved Employees in the Workplace
A guide to supporting bereaved employees in the United States for managers & colleagues, with advice on what to say to someone who is grieving in the workplace
If one of your employees or colleagues at work has recently lost a loved one and is still mourning, even if they have taken a period of bereavement leave, there are several things you can do to help them cope with their grief in the workplace.
It is important to remember that good support for a bereaved employee or colleague at work is not simply a human resources policy, but depends on the attitudes and actions of everyone in the organization. Bereavement and grief can soften the normal boundaries of professional relationships at work and as long as everyone communicates with one another it should not cause any problems in your team.
This guide to supporting an employee or colleague coping with grief in the workplace can help you approach them with sensitivity and compassion.
What should I know about grief to support a bereaved employee or colleague at work?
Everyone’s experience of bereavement is unique and unpredictable, but you can still support a colleague coping with grief in the workplace. Remembering these pointers can help you:
Grief is unpredictable
A bereaved colleague might be quieter, seem distracted or be less organized or motivated than usual.
Their grief is unique to them
Everyone has a different experience of bereavement. There is no ‘normal’ way to grieve. Even if you have experienced a similar type of bereavement, try not to say ‘I know how you feel,’ because their experiences and feelings might differ from yours.
Someone who is coping with grief in the workplace might be distracted or slow, and make mistakes. Try to offer them support, rather than complain about their performance.
Grief doesn’t have a timescale
There is no set time limit on mourning a loved one. Even if their grief changes and becomes more manageable, many bereaved people will carry it with them for the rest of their lives. Don’t assume that a colleague will ‘get over it’ within a certain amount of time.
You can’t fix it
You cannot fix someone’s grief or take it away. Trying to cheer them up or suggesting reasons why they shouldn’t feel so sad may not be helpful, even though it comes from genuine concern for them. Instead let them express how they are feeling and try to listen without judging.
What can I do to support a bereaved employee or colleague?
Sending a sympathy card might seem like the only thing you can, or need to, do for a bereaved colleague, but there is a lot more you can do to help them cope with their grief in the workplace.
Talk to them
It can be difficult to know what to say to a bereaved person, especially if the death is very recent. You might be worried about saying the wrong thing, but often saying something is better than ignoring them. Remember that the awkwardness you are feeling is nothing compared to their pain. Just a simple “I’m so sorry” will be better than staying silent. Ignoring them might make them feel isolated and alone.
Say their loved one’s name
Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died if it comes up in conversation. Avoiding the issue will make them feel as though they are not allowed to talk about their loved one. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the person who has died.
Offer practical support
Rather than saying, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know”, find a way to help and do it.
Don’t get offended if they reject your support
If a colleague says they do not need your help, do not take this personally. They may have a lot of people helping them, or they may want to deal with it on their own. Respect their decision but be there for them if they change their mind.
Don’t be embarrassed if they cry
Remember that bereavement and grief is difficult to contain within the normal boundaries of a professional relationship. Be ready with a tissue.
Listen to them
Having someone to talk to can be really important for a bereaved employee or colleague who is coping with grief at work. If someone opens up to you about how they are feeling, just listen. Be aware that they might not be asking for advice, so don’t rush to give your opinion. Some people process their grief by telling their story over and over again. This can help with their healing, so be patient.
Invite them to social events
If you have social events at your workplace, such as regular drinks, or birthday celebrations, do not assume that bereaved employees and colleagues do not want to attend them. Invite them, but tell them that you understand if they do not feel able to join you. They might reject your invitation, but even if they feel unable to go out today, in the near future they might need the distraction.
Provide long-term support
A bereaved person often has lots of support in the first days and weeks of their loss. It can take far longer than an initial easing-in period for someone who is grieving to adjust to being back at work. Work can be one of the first places where people feel that other people have forgotten their grief. They may prefer the distraction that their routine gives them, but it doesn’t hurt for colleagues to ask how they are feeling.
If you think that they might benefit from professional bereavement support, and it is appropriate to do so, referring them to a bereavement support group might be helpful for them.
GriefNet runs an email support group for anyone working with bereaved employees or colleaguesto get advice and support from other workers in similar situations. . Several charities, including Hospice Foundation of America and The Compassionate Friends have produced resources on supporting bereaved employees and colleagues in the workplace.