A guide to grief support in the workplace

National Grief Awareness Week begins on December 2nd this year. The Good Grief Trust created the week in order to normalise grief and get the public talking about it.

Natalya, our Digital Marketing Manager, and Debbie, our Head of Inclusion & Diversity Services (Sport), explore how to provide grief support for your co-workers in this article.

Dealing with the death of someone close is an event that shapes us. The pandemic has brought loss to the forefront for many people, whether it be the death of a close friend, a family member, or perhaps a colleague. 

Despite the large number of people who are grieving, most of us still find it difficult to support those who are struggling. It’s one of those delicate, taboo, and difficult topics, and many of us believe we lack the courage and abilities to provide ‘the correct’ support.

Many people still believe that if we ignore or avoid painful feelings, they will go away, and that this is preferable than opening up and having a “messy” conversation. When we ignore grieving, however, the process is likely to be more painful and long-lasting, impacting our quality of life and performance.

Why it’s important to support colleagues through bereavement

Grief is one of the most difficult experiences a person can have, so it’s critical to provide support to coworkers at all levels. Every employee’s mental health and well-being is critical, and businesses must help them deal with issues.

The implications of failing to properly support employees during grief can be disastrous for your company. You risk not only losing some of your best employees, but also jeopardising your company culture and making someone’s bereavement process much more difficult.

How to support a grieving co-worker

You may have close friends at work, or you may only be acquaintances with someone. You should reach out to anyone at your workplace who has experienced a bereavement, regardless of who they are. However, it is best you adapt your approach dependant on your relationship with the person who is grieving.

Below are some recommendations from our “Supporting Colleagues Through Grief” factsheet that can help you reach out to grieving colleagues with compassion and empathy and assist them through a traumatic event.

Knowing what to say to a co-worker when someone dies

One of the most difficult aspects of supporting someone who is grieving is figuring out what to say. However, saying something is much better than saying nothing at all.

You could use some of the following comforting words to say when someone dies, depending on your relationship with the individual who is grieving:

  • “How can I support you through this?”
  • “I wish I had the right words, just know I care.”
  • “I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.”
  • “My favourite memory of your loved one is…”
  • “Do you want to talk about your favourite memories with your loved one?”

There are a variety of phrases that people regularly use which should be avoided because they can make the person feel worse and conflicted.

Here are some things you should avoid saying, along with a brief explanation of why.

  • “They are in a better place.” –> This isn’t helpful to the bereaved person. Although you may mean well, this comment is useless because the best place for their loved one is with them.
  • “Be strong.” –> It is not necessary for the person who is grieving to be strong. They’re dealing with a traumatic life experience and dealing with loss on a larger scale. Avoid telling people how to cope with grief.
  • “There is a reason for everything.” –> It’s difficult enough to come to terms with losing someone, and often there is no reason for it. It’s crucial not to invalidate the person’s feelings by dismissing the situation.
  • “You can have another child still.”–> It is inappropriate and impolite to tell mourning parents that they can have another child. They had a child, and now they must deal with the reality that the child passed away. Do not forget their child and invalidate the life they should have had — speak the child’s name and acknowledge their existence.

Understand each individual

Some colleagues will need privacy to grieve and handle everything on their own. Some people, on the other hand, will want acknowledgement of their loss, while others will be unsure or want a combination of both.

It’s important to remember that the grieving process is highly personal, and that various people will require different types of support.

Employers should pay attention rather than trying to solve a problem; this demonstrates genuine concern and gives the colleague a safe space to decide what they require.

The importance of management

From a management standpoint, it’s critical to recognise the individual’s loss and allow them to lead the way on the next steps. Managers should be present and provide assistance through controlling work-related contact and requests.

The manager is important in addressing the colleague’s preferences and whether they are willing for them to be shared more generally. The manager can also continue to check in on the colleague to emphasise that they are there for them and that they are welcome to speak with them if they choose.

Bereavement policies

Everyone in the company should be aware of the business bereavement leave policies, often known as compassionate leave. It’s also critical that all colleagues are aware of any additional resources that may be accessible, such as counselling or the Employee Assistance Programme.

Be open with your colleague about the policy on returning to work and whether it is flexible. Although discussing the length of leave available may feel awkward, having some clarity during the grieving process can often be appreciated.

The amount of bereavement leave from work required will vary from person to person. As we have said, people grieve in different ways, and some will want to return to work right away because it provides them a sense of control or acts as a diversion, while others will want more time.

Policies are typically provided as a guide and to ensure consistency, but you should check to see if there is any discretion available in the event that a longer break is required.

Returning to work

When it comes to the person returning to work, check in with them to make sure the balance is right in terms of the length of time they are working, the types of tasks they are performing, and the location.

Some people will have a clear feeling of their preference, while others may have to discover by trial and error. You might also want to consider lowering performance expectations for a while.

Consider flexible working options

Following up on our last point, it is critical to be flexible and receptive to what works best for the employee. You need to have open and transparent dialogues about the working options accessible to them, whether it’s decreased hours or remote work. 

A person sat with their hands on their face, emotional and upset

Normalise emotions

All of your colleagues can play a significant part in assisting people with normalising their emotions. Assure them that powerful emotions like fear, worry, guilt, sadness, or rage are natural parts of the grieving process.

You might also assist them in recognising any changes in their focus, eating, or sleeping patterns that you notice. The grief cycle can change for everyone throughout time, so try to avoid thinking it’s a “five stage model.”

Grieving is a process

As previously mentioned, grief and bereavement can be unpredictable and can be retriggered by seemingly small events over an extended period. Talking about death at work needs to become more common, especially because so many of us are struggling with the loss of a loved one.

It is unrealistic to expect things to ‘get better’ and reduce in a linear way. We need to be comfortable and relaxed when helping someone with grief, including providing some extra flexibility at certain times. 

It is natural for an individual’s approach to work to appear inconsistent after a loss, and they may lack focus or motivation. This should not be taken to indicate a permanent decline in their performance.

Closing thoughts

According to studies, while a person is working through their grief, they are more likely to come to new realisations about how they want to live and their values and priorities are more likely to shift.

When colleagues start to show signs of hope and resolve, managers can encourage and show interest in their new attitudes to life and work and listen and support them as they evolve a new way of living.

Struggling with grief must be normalised, and we all need to move forward in discussing sensitive matters in the workplace issues.

Inclusive Employers members can access our factsheet about supporting colleagues through grief, here. If you’re not yet a member and would like advice on how to support grieving colleagues, please contact us here.