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Company Culture

Grief At Work: The Importance Of Supporting Your People

Amanda Cross

Grief touches everyone.

Whether you are an entry-level employee or a top executive, you've been impacted by the grief associated with losing someone you love. Unfortunately, many employees have felt the sting of being unsupported while dealing with grief at work. People don't want to talk about grief, so it gets pushed aside and dealt with poorly.

Part of creating a positive culture is being there for your team through thick and thin. Some days will be positive, and others will be negative. This guide aims to help people teams and managers assist their people when they need it most.

What Is Grief In The Workplace

Nikenya Hall, Founder and CEO of Achieving Balance Counseling & Holistic Center, LLC, defines grief as "the emotions around a loss."

Employees experience different types of loss, from a death in their family to a divorce or breakup. Dealing with loss can have a ripple effect. Hall shares, "We're in this notion, which I love, that we cannot leave home home."

Gone are the days when leaders expect employees to leave their baggage at the door. Especially in a time where remote work is prevalent, emotions are mixed up and impact every aspect of our lives.

“We're humans, and emotions don't stop because you are sitting at a desk or you're doing work duties. Sadness is not gonna be like, Okay, I'll wait,” adds Hall.

How To Spot Grief At Work

Grief is a personal experience.

Sometimes team members can toil in silence. It's up to leaders to dig deep to provide the best resources and help team members who may struggle to come forward.

Grief can make an employee work harder than usual or need more breaks than normal. Suffering also comes in waves that might look wildly different day-to-day. Hall suggests that leaders should lean into their intuition to spot grief at work, "you will feel the shift of the team, especially if you're in management, you know your employees. You know how they act, you know who's funny, you know who's not, you will feel a shift."

10 Strategies To Create A Better Workplace For Grieving Employees

Since grief touches everyone, companies must create a better workplace for grieving team members. Here are some simple but impactful tips for making this happen:

1. Create A Bereavement Policy

If you work in the United States, there is no national bereavement policy. Each company has to decide what makes sense for their team. Some companies forget to put a formal bereavement policy in place, and this creates a ton of ambiguity and grey areas for employees. As a result of the lack of direction, some teams have a better experience after the death of a loved one.

Having a solid bereavement policy in place is great for companies, managers, and employees alike.

  • The company knows what to expect when an employee experiences a death in the family and can create a better coverage plan for employees who need time away.
  • Managers know exactly what to offer their employees, and they don't need to spend time jumping through hoops or contacting HR to get time off approved.
  • Employees know exactly what to expect when they have a death in the family, and they don't need to think twice about taking time to mourn their loss or wonder why another employee has more time to grieve.

A simple policy should reflect:

  • How much time the employee has off
  • Which relationships are covered
  • Communication/work expectations during the time (ensuring employees know to unplug.)
  • Return to work transition (How will you bring the employee back into the fold after their bereavement leave.)

“Employers have to understand that grieving comes in many forms and for many different reasons,” shares Christie Engler, Director of People and Culture at Willory, “The days of having a narrowly-defined bereavement policy are gone. HR leaders need to draft policies that allow employees to have the time they need to work through their situation without fear of job loss or retaliation.”

Employee Time Off For Bereavement

Paid bereavement can vary by company, but according to Empathy, 36% of the companies they surveyed get five days.

More progressive companies are offering a more substantial amount. 41.5% of the employers Empathy surveyed offered 7+ days of bereavement. Another report from Empathy posits that employees are often forced to take unpaid time off after a loss. While 51% of the employees they surveyed took paid time off after a loss, 23% took unpaid time off. 

Most employers offer ten days or less of bereavement leave.

Maura McInerney-Rowley, CEO of Memento Mori, shares that two weeks is a better bereavement leave policy for employees and employers:

"Two weeks is not nearly enough, but it's a sweet spot that I think could work both for an employee and an employer in terms of shutting things down, and nothing catastrophic happening on the business side."

Who Is Covered By Bereavement Policies

According to data by Empathy, most companies offer bereavement for the following categories:

  • Child
  • Stepchild
  • Spouse
  • Parent
  • Domestic Partner
  • Sibling
  • Grandparent
  • Parent-in-law
  • Grandchild
  • Brother/sister-in-law

Most companies allow employees to use their maximum bereavement benefits to cover losses like children, spouses, and parents.

While this is a great start, there is so much more that bereavement leaves can cover. For example, the death of a colleague can be extremely devastating. Before Hall created her consultancy, she worked in management. One of her employees passed away, and this had a profound impact on the team:

"When I was in the workforce, one of my employees transitioned, and I didn't have anyone. My immediate supervisor called, and I think the VP came a couple of weeks later and got my employee's name wrong. I was the one who had to tell my team, carry my team, and be there for my team. There should have been someone else there for all of us because I was experiencing grief at the same time."

As a result of an employee dying, Nikenya had to learn to lead her team and give everyone enough time to grieve their loss. Unfortunately, this required a rotating schedule so that work could get done while the team was figuring out what their job looked like without their team member.

A rotating grief schedule isn't a great experience for your team. It's up to leaders to determine a better strategy for dealing with work when multiple employees need to grieve at once.

Besides significant grieving events like the death of a colleague, you might want to consider other events that need time to heal:

  • Miscarriages/stillbirths
  • Pet deaths
  • Extended family (some cultures are closer with cousins, uncles/aunts, and other community members.)

Work Expectations During Bereavement

Companies need to let work fall to the side during bereavement. Productivity isn't the main goal for someone after a death in the family; grieving and healing are. Physical and psychological injuries need time to rest and heal appropriately.

"Imagine you sprained your ankle. Instead of wrapping it and letting it rest for six weeks, and then you can start running again, you try and run on the second week, and then you just further injure it. Then you can't run again for another six months. And then you're just delaying delaying delaying the healing," shares McInerney-Rowley, "The same thing is similar with grief in that it can be delayed, and then those effects are not necessarily positive. In business speak, you're delaying the employee coming back and being productive by not initially giving them enough time and space to have while they're mourning."

Empathy reports that careers take a hit in the aftermath of a loss:

  • 76% of bereaved employees said their performance or work status was harmed.
  • 30% of bereaved employees reported a significant loss in productivity.
  • 12.5% of bereaved workers said their work reputation declined after a loss.

So, set clear expectations of what employees should expect from you during their time off. Ideally, your message is: “Be present in your grief, I’ll reach out after the appropriate time has passed to get you back in the swing of things.”

Some of your employees may feel like they need the distraction of work during their grieving period. This doesn't mean they are ready to return to work full-time. Allow employees to work if they feel like they can handle it, but don't push them or add deadlines to their plate if you see them checking Slack a few times during their bereavement leave.

Return To Work Transition After Bereavement

Returning to work after bereavement leave isn't always easy. Your team member is learning to live without someone who means a lot to them. They may not approach life and work the same after such a negative experience.

Your job as a manager is clear: Be there for your team and help them transition back to the company. You may decide they need to spend a bit more time away, or they may be good to return.

When talking about returning after grief, Nikenya Hall shares the importance of reiterating that grief isn’t permanent:

“I normalize that it's not forever. emotions come in, and emotions go out. So grief feels heavy right now. But it won't be heavy forever. And if we take away the fear of the heaviness, it takes away grief's power. So it's like, if someone needs to cry in the bathroom for 30 minutes, go cry in the bathroom. But that doesn't mean you need to go home for the day.”

2. Acknowledge That Grief Doesn’t Happen In A Linear Way

One of the most prominent theories on grief is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief. Kübler-Ross defined these stages in 1969 as a way to determine how terminally ill patients deal with their mortality, but this quickly became a lens for everyone to think about grief/death. She identified that terminally ill patients go through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

This notion of the five stages of grief has held back companies because it assumes that people are just pushing through the five stages to acceptance.

When sharing how she approaches her workshops, Hall shares that she avoids this line of thinking, “I'm not going to give you the five stages of grief. Yeah, like, hello, that's 1971. We're not doing that anymore. We're way more advanced.”

So, if the five stages of grief don't work, how should we think about it? Grief isn't linear, meaning your employees may take two steps forward and one step back. Backsliding during the grief process is natural, and specific triggers may impact your employees and make this happen more.

“The real difficulty of grief is twofold: the substance of grief, and the individual experiences and expressions of grief. It is important to remember that the five stages of grief are not linear, and they all present uniquely in each individual,” shares Laura McMillan, EVP of EAP at  Wellspring EAP.

Linn Atiyeh, CEO of Bemana, makes an excellent point about the nonlinear nature of grief:

“Owners and HR leaders shouldn't be surprised if a worker seems fine one day and then needs to take the next off. It's not a sign of malingering, but the natural ebb and flow of emotion.
Likewise, there is no time limit to suffering. While important days and holidays are likely to spark renewed pain, feelings can also bubble up unexpectedly. 
Give employees grace and flexibility instead of assigning a timeline to their recovery, and you'll ensure a healthier workplace overall.”

Grief isn't linear. Your employee may be doing well one day, and have a bad day after that. Give employees time to heal on their own timeline.

3. Create A Flexible Work Environment

Flexibility is critical when someone is going through a loss. When someone needs to be out for an extended period, companies often struggle with a loss of productivity. Unfortunately, some companies don't have enough workers to cover critical needs when someone needs to step away to take care of themselves. Grief and productivity don't go hand-in-hand.

“Flexible work arrangements can be beneficial, allowing the grieving employee to adjust their schedule or workload as needed. This flexibility acknowledges the emotional toll of grief and respects the individual's need for time and space to heal,” adds Vivian Acquah, Certified Diversity Executive at Amplify DEI.

Flexibility isn't the best strategy over simply letting employees take proper time to grieve, but it can be helpful for companies who don't have proper coverage.

Attire Flexibility

Some roles have rules around specific attire. For example, employees might have to wear khakis or ironed dress shirts. While this creates a specific customer experience, it's not always best for employees dealing with a loss. Being flexible about the attire employees wear can help them show up in a better mood. Being in restricting clothes when you want to hide from the world can be challenging. Moving employees to a job that allows them more attire flexibility is also helpful if your company requires customer-facing roles to look a certain way.

Extended Deadlines

It's natural for some actions to fall to the wayside when an employee is grieving. It doesn't mean that these activities will be shelved forever. Push back the due date to give employees more time to handle their personal business.

Work From Home Policies

Another strategy you can use is allowing employees to work from home when grieving. Sometimes, the most challenging part of working with grief is pretending. McInerney-Rowley adds:

“When you have to pretend that you're okay, that is exhausting. Which is why remote work and hybrid work is helpful because you can have those opportunities to be at home, to be in your sweats, to be sad, and not have to be on.”

4. Provide Empathy Training For Company Leaders

Empathetic leadership is necessary when someone is dealing with grief.

We all have different experiences with suffering. Some of your leaders may not be able to relate to an employee's pain based on personal experience, but they should empathize with someone going through a rough patch in their life.

Empathy is a useful management quality for interacting with employees and customers alike:

“I would love to see more empathy training and resources in the workplace, I think that's the best place you can start because empathy not only extends to a teammate in need, but a customer,” shares McInerney-Rowley, “What's the product you're selling? What are you building? How are you supporting your customers? That requires empathy of understanding what they're going through, what their pain point is, and what problem you're solving.”

Companies should recognize the difference between empathy and similar phrases like sympathy. Michelle Smith, Director at the National Grief and Bereavement Association, shares:

“When we take an empathetic approach, we seek to see things from the perspective of the grieving employee. This helps form trust and stronger communication, which are key in providing support. When we opt for sympathy, although coming from a place of good intention, it is often perceived as offering pity rather than understanding. 
There is also research that suggests sympathy creates a hierarchy. When dealing with such an emotive and personal subject, it is vital that we embrace a person-centered approach.
Distinguishing between empathy and sympathy can have a significant impact on the experience of the individual grieving and the individual supporting.”

Encourage your leaders to take classes and read books on empathy, emotional intelligence, and sensitivity to strengthen their skills in this area.

5. Establish A Peer Support Network For Grieving Employees

Many of your workers have dealt with grief. Some might enjoy connecting and sharing their experiences to process their thoughts. Employee resource groups have impacted the workforce by allowing workers with similar backgrounds, interests, and experiences to meet and connect.

One way to support your people is by giving them the space to share their experiences during work hours. ERGs often meet once or twice a month to cover a specific topic. It's an experience that allows workers to meet colleagues from every department, race, gender, level, etc.

“Open conversations about grief should be normalized, and privacy should be respected. This collective support not only aids the grieving employee but also strengthens the overall inclusivity and empathy within the workplace,” shares Acquah.

Peers can also be helpful during the grieving process. Encourage employees to check in on teammates if the relationship warrants it. Often, employees will be in touch with team members that matter, but you can encourage proactive outreach. You could also use peers to organize other types of support. For example, a meal train for employees who are dealing with grief. Sites like MealTrain or Give InKind can help companies set these up.

Peer support through employee resource groups can be wonderful for grieving employees.

6. Provide Employee Assistance Programs And Other Resources

Employee assistance programs can be a helpful benefit if they are used correctly. Unfortunately, EAPs have historically low usage due to worker mistrust and poor promotion. Programs meant to help employees through life's challenges often go unused.

When creating your company's resources and assistance programs, it's important to consider ease of use, "Grief resources and support are only as useful as they are if they are removing friction for the griever," shares McInerney-Rowley.

If your program feels like another hoop for an employee to jump through during their time of need, your programs will go underutilized. The last thing a grieving team member wants to do is dig through another tool to find the information they need.

So, how can employers ensure team members actually use the company’s provided resources? Step up and be supportive:

“The onus is on the employer to provide one on one support,” adds McInerney-Rowley, “If someone has a death of a loved one, and they're grieving, the procedure would probably fall into account that they tell their manager, and their manager can inform HR. Together, they can put a support team for them in place.”

7. Connect Your Company Values To How You Approach Grief At Work

Company core values often become office decorations instead of how a company exists.

You may see your company’s values printed and plastered all over the office walls, but how do your values play in communication and day-to-day experiences? For example, if you value transparency, that should impact how you handle grief at work.

“The best thing employers can do is proactively strategize,” shares McInerney-Rowley, “If someone experiences the death of a loved one at our company, what are our bereavement policies? What is our culture? What are our values? How do we want to handle something like this, as opposed to trying to reactively mend the situation.”

Consider your company experience from the perspective of a grieving worker. Does their experience align with your values and culture? Would they be shocked by how they are treated based on how they are treated when they are fully productive? If so, it’s time to return to your values and create a better experience for your team.

8. Keep Communication As Streamlined As Possible

Communication can change how an employee manages grief at work. Often, employers treat grieving workers like they have the plague and avoid them at all cost. This is a byproduct of how we handle grief as a whole. Employees shouldn't be left to their own devices, but we shouldn't send them a million messages while they are spending time with family. It's important to get communication just right to avoid alienating or overstimulating workers.

Designate A Liason To Speak With The Grieving Employee

Designate one person an employee can speak with and get information from, especially as it relates to work-related issues. Instead of dealing with HR, managers, executives, etc., ensure one person is in charge of the communication.

Your liaison's job is to collate information from various sources and deliver one streamlined message when needed. This job requires discernment. Should employees be asked when they will turn in a project while grieving their mother? This liaison should be able to push back and demand that an employee get the right to mourn in peace.

Be Respectful In Your Conversations

Respect is an essential part of your worker’s healing journey. McMillan touches on how popular phrases can be perceived negatively during the mourning process:

"It can be helpful to steer away from language that is overly familiar (i.e., "we are a family" and "we will take care of you"), but do use language that is supportive, accommodating, and empathetic (such as, "how can we support you as you are not at your regular capacity?")."

While many employees may want to speak with an employee on bereavement, it's important to streamline the process and avoid frequent interruptions.

9. Don’t Be Afraid To Bring In Outside Consultants

Some of your managers may not be equipped to support their workers through grief. In that scenario, the best strategy is to bring in outside help. Consultants can be a valuable tool to help you build a better workplace for grieving team members.

Hosting Grief Workshops

Experts like Nikenya Hall help companies by coming in and hosting grief workshops. When your team needs to come together after a loss, using an internal representative to hold those conversations can be challenging. Leaders might feel overwhelmed or interject with a ton of corporate jargon and content that doesn't appeal to employees. Outside consultants have a different relationship with the team and the deceased, which can lead to a better experience for everyone.

Hall touches on the importance of involving everyone when hosting grief workshops, “It needs to be as mandatory as possible, again, all the way up to you, the manager, whomever, down to the janitor, because most of the time, they're the one that's cleaning out the desk. They're the one that's touching the deceased, and we forget about that.”

Another benefit of an outside consultant? Management can get involved, relax, and get the help they need, too. When Hall sees leaders putting on their management hat, she resets the tone, "I will call them on it and be like, take that hat off. And when I do that, it kind of releases them. They go, oh, I can just be a participant?"

Helping Create Better Workplace Policies And Benefits

Another way that outside consultants can help you is by creating better workplace policies and benefits. 

McInerney-Rowley suggests that companies "hire a grief expert to look over your policies, your programs, your education, your resources and to make sure it's up to date, and in best practices."

When McInerney-Rowley created her business Memento Mori, she spoke with various experts in the field, like chaplains, nurses, funeral directors, grieving people, lawyers, and anyone else she thought might impact a grieving person's journey. Meeting with several people in your area can help you understand how to best support your team while giving you a list of resources you can send to employees later.

10. Collect Feedback To Improve Your Support Processes

Feedback is essential to creating a better experience for grieving team members. It's important to approach your ask the right way as team members return to work.

“Talk to your employees when they come back and when they're ready,” adds McInerney-Rowley,  “Ask them is there anything we could have done differently? Is there anything that you found helpful? You frame it in the context of, if this happens to someone else, we'd like to be able to improve how we handle a situation.”

Once you receive feedback, take the time to act on it, and follow up with employees to share your actions. Constructive feedback stops when employees feel like they aren't being heard. So, close the feedback loop by taking action and communicating your changes.

After an employee has returned to work, collect feedback on their experience to improve your grief support experience.

Conclusion: Grief Impacts Every Person On Your Team

There are so many ways to approach grief at work. Companies often fall short because discussing topics like death can be taboo. As a result, making small changes toward actually communicating with grieving team members can set your company apart from the rest.

When you are thinking about the first steps to creating a culture of care for grieving team members, our experts have some great advice:

McInerney-Rowley suggests the importance of connecting with outside experts, “Talk to experts, and start devising a plan that says, if someone loses a loved one, this is what this is what we do. And these are what our values are, and this is how we incorporate our values, through what we're recommending.”

Hall suggests that we need to rip the band-aid off and acknowledge grief when we see it, "I think that's the first thing, it's here and I see it, because we want to push it in the corner because we don't know what to do. So one just acknowledging it, and two being like, I'm not trying to solve or fix anything. If anything, I'm promoting the humaneness in you, in my employees, and that is the most powerful thing."

Again, it's important to remember the impact of grief. Hall shares that "everyone has touched grief. So no matter your title or your salary, it does not exempt you from grief knocking at your door." The impacts of grief are far-reaching, so putting energy into your strategies around this experience will reach every person on your team.

Create a culture people won't want to leave with Nectar

About Nectar

Nectar is a platform that helps companies create cultures people won't want to leave. With our recognition tools, custom challenges, and milestones, we can help your team connect and create a stellar company culture. Displaying positive behaviors like hosting a grief support group for the team or covering some extra duties while an employee is out can be turned into physical rewards by redeeming Nectar points. Your employees are doing amazing things, so why not celebrate those wins?

Companies turn to Nectar to increase engagement and ensure that teams feel connected and appreciated. Do you want to learn more about implementing a solution like Nectar at your company? Request a demo and set up a time to chat with one of our sales team members.

Actionable workplace tips & insights for fellow people lovers

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