Managing Employees During a Time of Grief

Managing employees who are grieving after the loss of a family member or friend can be difficult and feel uncomfortable. There are several considerations to take into account both on the personal and professional side including the type of loss and relationship to the deceased, the circumstances surrounding the loss, and the nature of the relationship the employee has with the company.

Managers and supervisors may not know what to say or how to act towards the employee. It may be difficult to determine to what extent the company bereavement policy should apply, which often varies based on the type of loss.

When an employee experiences the death of a family member or close friend, the natural reaction of the supervisor is to back away and give the employee time to grieve. Although, providing space and respecting privacy after a loss shows understanding and empathy, it is also very important for the company’s management to demonstrate a plan of action and structured course for the employee and other employees.

It is easy to understand that talking about death and grieving is uncomfortable. However, a hands off approach is generally not the best way to deal with the situation. It is important to engage the employee who experienced a loss to offer assistance during the employee’s emotional recovery. This demonstrates that the management is concerned about the welfare of the company’s employees and view these individuals as a part of the team. Comforting employees during a loss helps to build company morale and also creates a more productive work environment.

How a Manager Acts When Learning of a Loss

Many managers and supervisors are uncertain how to act after learning that an employee has suffered a death in the family or of a friend. When a manager is notified about a loss, the initial reaction towards the employee can be important to demonstrate sincere concern and have long-term impacts on the relationship between the employee and the company. As a matter of priority it is important to show signs of genuine sympathy and to express condolences for the loss. As the representative of the company, it is common to ask if the funeral arrangements are known and inquire about the extent of the bereavement leave needed. It is helpful to notify the employee that the co-workers will be saddened by the loss. During this initial conversation, it is appropriate to ask “What would the employee like the manager or company to tell co-workers?”

At this point it is helpful to communicate the business’ bereavement policy to the employee. If there is a human resource department, suggest that the employee talk to them and fill out any necessary forms. Remember that although the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to take leave to care for a seriously ill spouse, parent or child, it does not cover leave time spent in bereavement and time off is based on company policy and ability.

Managers’ Role During the Bereavement Time

During the leave a manager can serve as the go-between for the grieving employee and the co-workers. The manager often coordinates the sending of sympathy gifts, collecting contributions from co-workers and arranges to send flowers, cards or make a contribution. As the company representative, the supervisor may be the individual who remains in touch with the family to assist with conveying messages from the co-workers. It is common for a manager to send a personal sympathy card with a condolence gift, apart from what the company may send.

When an Employee Returns to Work

When an employee returns to work following time off for bereavement it is common for the manager to meet with the individual and to go over the work missed. In this initial meeting, managers may consider creating an open discussion that allows the employee to discuss anything about the recent experience. It is important to note that for some employees, duties at work can provide structure and normalcy that promotes healing and acceptance in the grieving process. The workplace may provide a time to set aside the emotions and struggles of coping with the loss. It can be therapeutic to experience the stability of a portion of life that has not changed.

However, it is also important to recognize that the work environment may be stressful for the employee and returning to work may be overwhelming and too much to handle. This is a difficult process to manage and delicate situation for all involved. The death of a family member or friend may make the employee more physically tired and the job requirements or hours may leave the employee exhausted. Although balancing the company interests with the employees are critical, it may be necessary to shift the job responsibilities of the employee for a brief time period. A temporary schedule adjustment of fewer hours may be needed.

At this point in time, it is also helpful to remind the employee about any company programs that are available to support workers during the time of loss. Remember that grieving is a process that may impact the employee for several weeks or months.

Manager’s Role During an Extended Recovery

It is important for the manager to meet with the employee periodically over the next few months. This will help managers with identifying changes in the employee’s behavior and symptoms of grief. It is vital to treat all grieving employees the same, so as to avoid displays that might be viewed as either favoritism or discrimination.

If returning to productive work seems to a struggle for the employee, the manager may offer suggestions of places to receive support, counsel and guidance. The manager is ultimately responsible for identifying ways to help make the employee’s job simpler and more manageable.