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How to manage employees who are grieving

by on
in Leaders & Managers,People Management

When an employee experiences the death of a family member or close friend, it’s tempting for supervisors to take a hands-off approach to the em­­ployee’s grief.

Maybe the manager feels uncomfortable, wants to avoid inadvertent insensi­­tiv­­ity … or just doesn’t know what to say.  

However, silently waiting for the em­­ployee’s emotional recovery isn’t the best strategy. It can lead to reduced morale, reduced productivity and em­­ployees feeling that their managers don’t care about them as people.

Effective supervisors understand that grief is a mental health issue that must be gently confronted. Take the following four steps to sensitively manage grieving employees and their impact on co-workers.

After learning of the loss

Immediately show genuine sympathy and support. Don’t discuss job responsibilities; it can be perceived as insensitive and increase emotional distress.

Gently ask the following: “What would you like me to tell co-workers?” “Will you call to let me know how you are doing?”

Understand the organization’s ­be­­reave­­ment leave policy and communicate it to the employee. If necessary, suggest the employee talk to the HR department and, if necessary, fill out any appropriate forms.

Note: The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to take job-protected leave to care for a seriously ill spouse, parent or child. FMLA leave does not cover leave for time spent in bereavement or wrapping up the affairs of someone who dies. Again, check with HR about the policy.

During bereavement leave

Serve as a liaison between grieving em­­ployees and co-workers. Periodically ask, “What would you like me to tell co-workers who are concerned about you?”

Coordinate requests, such as having people send flowers or contribute to a charitable foundation. Managers should send their own sympathy card or note, separate from the staff.

Instead of flowers, supervisors some­­times send books on how to deal with grief. Good titles: The Heal­­ing Journey Through Grief (Rich); The Grief Re­­cov­­ery Handbook (James, Friedman); and Healing Grief at Work (Wolfelt).

Upon returning to work

Meet with the employee. Ask whether there is anything the person wants to discuss about the recent experience or returning to work. Offer reminders about company programs available to support employees dealing with a loss.

Remember that grieving ­­employees carry emotional pain that lasts for sev­­eral weeks or months. They will experience all or many of the typical stages of grief (see below).

During the ensuing weeks

Meet with the employee periodically. Watch for drastic behavior changes and displays of grief. For example, it’s natural for grieving employees to talk about deceased loved ones and post pictures.

But suppose an employee talks very frequently about the loss to the point of distraction. Your approach? Avoid insensitivity. Don’t tell the employee to talk less about the deceased or remove memorabilia from the desk.

Instead, suggest that the employee meet with HR to discuss ways to obtain support for dealing with grief. Also remind co-workers to be patient with employees who have a particularly tough time handling grief.

Final tip: Treat all grieving employees the same to avoid the perception of favoritism or discrimination.

The 5 stages of grief

1. Denial. “This can’t be happening to me.”

2. Anger. “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”

3. Bargaining. “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”

4. Depression. “I’m too sad to do anything.”

5. Acceptance. “I’m at peace with what happened.”

Source: On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Grissom February 4, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Another very practical and helpful idea is to recommend a GriefShare support group to your employee. We have an international network of more than 9,000 sites equipped to offer these groups. To find the nearest one, search our database at http://www.griefshare.org

Steve Grissom


donna February 4, 2012 at 9:35 am

I must agree with susan, I lost my husband 3 yrs ago aged 40 and i still grieve for him. I had no support from my bosses and even had to phone them to ask when I should return to work. I returned to work two weeks after his passing but i now know it was far to soon. almost all my work colleagues ignored me, with the exception of a couple.
now at work I feel like i can’t talk about my loss because i can feel they are thinking, here she goes again, she should be over it.
i agree there are no stages to grief. its all to do with the individual and its an insult to anyone that has lost someone.


Sympathy February 4, 2012 at 8:43 am

Can’t agree more… you are spot on with your insights on grief.


Susan Fuller February 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Thank you for addressing this issue but I’d like to clarify some points. One there is no such thing as the stages of grief…they are nothing more than a cultural cliché. The whole idea does a tremendous disservice to people who are grieving and end up feeling like they’re not grieving properly because they’re not following the stages.

The other point is that grief does take weeks and months and even years. Suggesting that it’s only months is just plain inaccurate.

You might be interested in my book on grief, ‘How to Survive Your Grief When Someone You Love Has Died.’

Susan Fuller


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