Grief Support Can Help Bereaved Workers Deal with Loss

When grief touches the workplace, productivity can suffer

By Joanne Sammer May 31, 2016
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Death is an inevitable part of life. It is also unavoidable that grief will be an issue in the workplace. Employers can help by recognizing the impact that mourning can have on bereaved employees and those who work with them.

“People generally get 3 to 7 days of bereavement leave then come back to work,” said Judie Bucholz, a professor at Columbia Southern University and author of the book Homicide Survivors: Misunderstood Grievers (2002, Baywood). “But grief lasts much longer. Employees often find that their concentration could be affected, which in turn impacts their productivity.”

When Karen Millsap’s husband was murdered several years ago, the HR executive and her colleagues entered into new and often intimidating territory. As Millsap discovered, people just don’t know what to do or say to someone who has experienced this kind of tragedy. When bereavement is unexpected or occurs in traumatic circumstances, grief becomes even more intense and difficult to deal with.

“Suddenly, my team had to figure out what to do to help me,” said Millsap. “Some of the things they said and did were great and some were not so great.”

In the years since, Millsap has looked for ways to help others going through similar experiences and is now a certified grief counselor. One of the most important things she learned is that employers cannot ignore these situations.

Grief and Teamwork

When grief touches the workplace, productivity can suffer in multiple ways. Teams working closely together are bound to be affected by a grieving colleague—especially if team members have experienced grief themselves.

Training for managers and HR professionals should focus on how to identify and support bereaved employees and their immediate co-workers. “It can be as simple as asking employees what they need,” said Bucholz. In some cases, the employee might benefit from a flexible work arrangement that allows the employee to avoid working during the hours when his or her grief is at its worst. “Employers might create a small serenity room where people can go and relax if they need to,” she said.

Even allowing bereaved employees to take a grief break for 15 minutes if they are overwhelmed by emotions can be crucial to them. In addition to these steps, employers also can direct grieving employees to meetings with employee assistance program (EAP) or grief counselors.

Workshops can also help employees “to become aware of all of the decisions involved when someone dies,” said Bucholz. “People don’t take the time to prepare and they don’t consider the impact traumatic loss and grief can have on themselves and others.”

Engaging with Grief

Millsap suggests these steps to support employees through current and future bereavements:

Create a process for communicating about loss in the workplace while still respecting employees’ privacy.

Help employees know what to say and what not to say to a bereaved colleague.

Realize that grief comes in waves and can last for a long time.

Train managers to recognize the signs that a bereaved employee is struggling.

Create a way for employees to donate paid time off to bereaved colleagues if such a system does not already exist.

Suggest that a bereaved employee identify an accountability partner who will challenge the employee not to cut themselves off from others and to seek help when needed.

Consider changes to a bereaved employee’s workload; for example, not allowing the employee to take on major projects for a certain period of time without the support of others.

Leverage the EAP and other available resources to help all employees deal with loss.

“This is part of employee engagement,” Millsap said. “It is about being there when life happens.”

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.

Related SHRM Articles:

Sudden Death, HR Magazine, February 2012

Coping with Grief, HR Magazine, September 2003

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