Many team members and coworkers feel uncertain about how to respond when a coworker is dealing with loss and grief. I recently lost my dad, and the experience made me realize how important it is to support people appropriately when grieving.
So today, I want to share my thoughts on what employers can do to help their staff through grief—from small acts of kindness to specific processes—so you can create a supportive environment for those who experience emotional pain or loss.
Recognize that grief is a natural response to many situations
Grief and loss can arise from the death of a loved one and a variety of other life events. For example, people might experience grief when a spouse loses their job, they face a major illness diagnosis, or go through a relationship breakup.
Regardless of the source of the pain, it is essential to recognize that everyone grieves differently, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. Some individuals might feel intense sadness, while others might experience anger, guilt or anxiety.
Take the burden of communication off of their shoulders
One thing that my team members at Boomer Consulting did for me that I appreciated immediately following my father's death was to handle communications with the rest of the team.
I needed to take some time away from work, meaning some of the projects and tasks I normally handle needed reassignment. Fortunately, I didn't have to handle that myself. I told Sandra Wiley what I was going through, and she assured me that she would communicate with the rest of the team and ensure that any tasks that needed reassignment would be handled.
This might seem small, but it was incredibly helpful not to have to explain the situation repeatedly to multiple people and worry about work at that moment.
Handling communications with the rest of the team is a simple yet effective way for employers to support grieving staff members. When other coworkers are informed about what is happening, they can be more understanding and accommodating to their colleague's circumstances. This can help ease the burden on the grieving employee and allow them to focus on taking the time they need to heal and process their emotions.
Offer support through conversation and resources
Offering support to grieving employees involves more than just handling communication and giving them time off. One fundamental way employers can support grieving staff members is by engaging in compassionate conversation. This can be as simple as asking how they are doing and letting them know you are there to support them through this difficult time.
It is essential to approach these conversations sensitively, as everyone experiences grief differently. For example, some employees prefer to talk about their emotions openly, while others are more reserved. Regardless of how they communicate, it is important to listen without judgment and offer empathy and support.
In addition to providing emotional support, it is also important to make sure that grieving employees are aware of other available resources. This may include bereavement time off and your employee assistance program (EAP), which can provide counseling, therapy sessions, or other forms of support to help employees cope with grief and other challenges.
Managers and HR professionals can work with employees to identify which resources might be most helpful and ensure they can access them. This can help employees feel more supported and equipped to manage their emotions and navigate the grieving process.
Provide flexibility and a level of grace when it comes to performance
Grief is not a linear process; it can take months or even years to work through the emotions associated with a significant loss. Some individuals might feel like they are making progress one day, only to feel overwhelmed the next. So it's essential to provide ongoing support to those who are grieving rather than simply assuming they will "get over it" within a certain timeframe.
When employees are grieving, their performance may understandably suffer. In such situations, it's important to offer them the flexibility to take the time they need to heal without causing undue stress about their job security or performance evaluation. Managers can provide this grace by extending deadlines or delegating tasks to their colleagues so grieving employees can focus on their recovery.
Even after employees have resumed their normal hours and duties, they may still require a mental health day here or take time off to attend counseling or therapy appointments. Rather than viewing this as a setback for productivity, managers should see it as an investment in their employees' mental health and well-being. By providing flexible schedules or allowing them to work from home, employers can help create a supportive work environment that acknowledges the challenges of grieving and takes steps to address its impact on employee productivity.
Stay in touch, but don't be overbearing
Staying in touch with grieving employees is essential, but you don't want to come across as overbearing or intrusive. Offering support without being pushy can be delicate, especially when managers want to ensure they hold space for their employees while respecting their boundaries.
To strike that balance, let the employee know you're available and check in regularly, but don't push for responses. Inquire about how they're doing, but also respect their need for space and quiet.
Also, when interacting with grieving employees, be sincere and empathetic. Understandably, you don't have all the answers. However, being there for the employee by merely listening can help build trust and emotional connection. Offering encouragement and reminding them that they have an entire support team behind them can help them feel loved and valued. You might also consider suggesting articles, books or podcasts to give them an outlet in case they're not ready to discuss their emotions.
You might also arrange for coworkers to create a "meal train" to bring food to their family or send a heartfelt card, flowers or gift basket. Physical acts of kindness can be a comforting reminder to the employee that they're not alone.
If you're the one grieving
Dealing with grief at work can be extremely challenging—especially if you're the one grieving. The emotional burden of loss may make it difficult to perform even routine tasks, and the constant reminder of your grief may exacerbate your already vulnerable state. However, by caring for yourself, seeking help and finding support, you can navigate this difficult time and return to work with renewed strength.
The first step in dealing with grief at work is to take care of yourself. This means acknowledging your emotions and allowing yourself to feel them without judgment or guilt. You should also prioritize self-care practices such as getting enough sleep, eating well, staying hydrated and exercising regularly. These practices can help you build resilience and maintain energy levels during this challenging time.
Take advantage of counseling services, support groups, or grief counseling offered by your EAP or health insurance benefits. Talking about your emotions and feelings in a supportive environment can help you process the grief and find new ways to cope.
When you return to work, go at your own pace. You may need to adjust your workload or take more breaks. Be honest with your colleagues and manager about what you need, and don't be afraid to ask for help or accommodations. It's okay to take your time and prioritize your healing over work-related obligations for a while. Remember, grief is a natural process, and healing takes time.
Ultimately, helping employees through the grieving process is a sign of strength and support that every firm should strive for. It allows us to build relationships with coworkers and build trust and loyalty. Remember, people aren't just colleagues at work—they're human beings, first and foremost, who require understanding at times of hardship.
Do you want to connect with other Operational Leaders in the accounting profession to become a more confident leader?
The Boomer Operations Circle is a peer group of Operational Leaders from successful and growing firms who work together to develop the best business strategies, plans and procedures. Apply now to start building valuable long-term relationships with others who are navigating the same challenges in shaping their firms for the future.
As the Director of Project Management for Boomer Consulting, Inc., Erin plans, organizes, secures and manages resources for the firm’s many service and program areas, including providing assistance and constant communication with clients and sponsors and serving as an even liaison. Her primary duties include overseeing and managing the specifics of all Boomer Consulting, Inc. communities, such as the Boomer Technology Circles, CIO Circle, Managing Partner Circle, Business Transformation Circle and Operations Circle.