Supporting colleagues who are grieving

National Grief Awareness Day on 30th August 2021 is dedicated to raising awareness of the ways in which individuals cope with loss, encourages us to support those who are grieving and provides resources for those that are.

In the run up to this and our Grief in the Workplace webinar on 25th August, Debbie Epstein, Head of Inclusion and Diversity for Sport shares a selection of tips that should help us all to build confidence in this space.

Dealing with the death of someone close, is one of those events that shapes us.  During the current period in particular, this has sadly impacted many of us, whether it be the death of a close friend, a family member or perhaps a colleague. 

Despite this, most of us still find it a challenge to offer support to those who are grieving.  It is one of those topics that feels sensitive, taboo and awkward, and many of us feel we lack the confidence and skills to offer ‘the right’ support. 

Many still hold the misconception that if we ignore/avoid difficult emotions they will go away and prefer this over opening things up and having a ‘messy’ conversation.  Yet when we avoid our grief the process is likely more intense and lasting and has a greater impact on our quality of life and performance. 

We hope that these top tips, taken from our ‘Supporting colleagues through grief’ factsheet, will help you to reach out with compassion and sensitivity to grieving colleagues and help them through a traumatic event:

Make contact, acknowledge and talk about the event

At an early opportunity it will be important for the manager to acknowledge the individual’s loss and give them the opportunity to take the lead on next steps.  Managers should be present and provide support by managing the contact with and demands arising from work. Paying attention, rather than trying to solve the issue will signal that the employer cares and provide the space for the colleague to consider what they need.

Some colleagues will want privacy and to grieve and process alone, others will want some acknowledgement of their loss, some may be unsure or want a mix of these approaches.  The manager will play an important role here in discussing the colleague’s preferences and whether they are happy for these to be shared more widely.  The manager can also continue to check in on the colleague to show they have support and can talk if they wish.

Policies and formal support

Understand your compassionate leave/ bereavement policy and other support available such as counselling or the Employee Assistance Programme offer. 

Be open with your colleague about what the policy is for returning to work and whether it might be flexible.  Although it might feel awkward to talk about the length of leave available, having some clarity during the grieving period can often be appreciated. As we have said, people process grief differently and some will want to get back to work immediately as it gives a sense of control or serves as a distraction, and some will need more time.  Policies are normally provided as a guide and to provide consistency, but you may want to check as to whether there is any room for discretion, should a longer break be required.

Identify a key contact point

The team may want to offer support, send condolences, flowers, attend the funeral etc.  Consider identifying one person through which all of this can be arranged so that the colleague is not inundated with contact from across the team when they may be feeling overwhelmed.

Work pattern and volume

On return to work, check in with your colleague to make sure the balance is right in terms of the duration of work, the types of tasks they are doing and the location.  Some individuals will have a strong sense of their preference, for others it might be a question of trial and error.  Alongside this you may need to consider reducing performance expectations for a period.

Give permission to experience strong emotions

You can play an important role in helping your colleague normalise their emotions.  Reassure them that if they are experiencing strong feelings such as fear, anxiety, guilt, sadness or anger, this is a normal part of the grieving process.  You might also help them to recognise any changes in concentration, eating and sleeping habits that you notice. 

Recognise the ebb and flow of grief

As above grief and trauma can be unpredictable and retriggered by seemingly small events over an extended period.  It is not realistic to expect things to reduce and ‘get better’ in a linear way. We need to be comfortable and relaxed when a colleague needs some extra flexibility at certain times.  For some time after a loss it is normal for an individual’s approach to work to appear inconsistent and they may lack in focus or drive.  This should not be taken to indicate a permanent decline in their performance.

Working through the grief

Studies show that once someone has worked through their grief they are likely to come to new realisations about the way they want to live and their values and priorities can 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.

Inclusive Employers members can access our factsheet about Supporting colleagues through grief, here.

Book your place on our Grief in the Workplace webinar today. Members can have up to five free places on this webinar.