One of the few inescapable facts of life is death…. But it’s the elephant in the room. We want to reach out to a bereaved colleague with such words of sympathy as we can but are wary of saying the wrong things. Often people end up saying nothing or even avoiding someone who has suffered a loss. The way a manager responds can be helpful in going through the process of mourning.
There are three phases of mourning: the first one is anger and a refusal to accept the loss; the second marked by pain and despair; and one by slow reinvestment in life. These phases don’t occur in a sequence, so as a manager, you should understand the three phases and the most helpful response to each.
In the immediate aftermath of the death, acknowledging a bereaved employee’s loss without making demands is the best thing you can do. Colleagues will express their sympathy to grieving colleagues, but it is especially important that you do too. Managers represent the business, and your demonstration of support is a sign that the organisation cares.
The support you provide, through a phone call and, if appropriate, a personal visit, goes a long way toward reassuring employees that they are valued and supported. Show that you recognise their loss and find out what they would like you to tell others at work.
Send flowers or a card. You can also ask whether your presence at the funeral service would be acceptable.
Be open with bereaved employees about the policy for time off and returning to work and assure them that colleagues will be glad to see them when they do return. While some managers might find it awkward to discuss an employee’s return to work in the immediate aftermath of death, the bereaved often long for clarity. When life has been turned upside down, the normality of work can give a sense of familiarity.
Everyone responds to grief differently. Some people just want to get back to work as a distraction from grieving. Others may need more time, for practical reasons or because they are more overwhelmed by their grief. Some employees may want to bring some of their grief to work, hoping that others will acknowledge it.
When the employee is ready to return to work, prepare colleagues, through communication about the returning employee’s wishes. Ask bereaved employees what they want and need. For example: “How would you like your colleagues to respond? Do you want to come in for an hour or two and see everybody, so your return is not too overwhelming? Would it be helpful to work half time for a couple of weeks?” Allow grieving employees to choose and respect their choice. If they are not sure what would be best, give them some time.
Most workers come back to work after a few days or weeks, but feelings of grief can remain powerful for months and even years. Don’t assume that everything will go back to “business as usual” when they return. The person in mourning will probably continue to be in the grip of intense confusion, exhaustion, and pain for some time. These feelings vacillate, a bit like waves sweeping in and out again, and such surges of emotion can themselves cause a bereaved employee difficulty.
It is usually a relief to people who are in the throes of grief to understand that you hold them in the same regard as before but do not have the same expectations for some time. You might assign people to tasks that support their need to manage other parts of their lives, for example, you might allow remote working or flexible work hours for a period, along with regular reviews to discuss how the employee is coping and whether further adjustments are needed. Flexibility helps people benefit from the structure of returning to work without being overwhelmed. If an employee continues to struggle several months after a loss, you could do some research and suggest that the employee might benefit from consulting a grief counsellor.
Eventually, as the bereaved employee comes to the terms with their loss, they start to experience hope for the future. This can be an unsettling time too, because often people who have experienced loss feel “wrong” for starting to feel happy again. Offer support by listening as they start looking forward and creating a new way of living and being.
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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.
Copyright © 2019 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.
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