Grieving Employees and Co-workers Bring Special Needs to the Job

When grief goes to work, it can be difficult for everyone. What do you say to a fellow employee? As a supervisor, how do you know what to do with regard to work assignments and helping your employee without making them feel helpless? These and many other questions are addressed in this article by Sherry Williams White, nurse, writer and grief specialist.

by Sherry L. Williams

If you have a bereaved employee or co-worker, you may be surprised at changes in him or her. You may even be frustrated with these changes. It will help both of you and your co-worker if you understand what he or she is experiencing.

First, it helps if you fully understand grief. Grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss that cannot be turned on and off. It has no boundaries and can strike anywhere, anytime and anyone. It is a complex process that affects every level of a person's life: emotional, physical, psychological, social and spiritual.

Grief is an individual and a community response that varies according to the person and the circumstances. It has no timetable and lasts far longer than anyone expects. Grief is not a lack of faith or a sign of weakness. We grieve because we love.

Research shows that grief affects the workplace in a variety of ways. There may be a loss of productivity and a rise in accidents among employees who have suffered a loss. A grieving employee may also experience and exhibit:   

  • Poor concentration and difficulty making decisions
  • Disinterest in job-related details
  • Increase in absenteeism and/or tardiness
  • Mood swings and detachment
  • Marital and family problems

As a supervisor or co-worker you may not know how to react or what to say. You may not know what to expect in terms of job performance. You want to understand that a bereaved employee may become frustrated at the prospect of performing tasks that may seem trivial by comparison with the loss. 

What can employers do?
Acknowledge the loss with sensitivity and compassion. Attend the funeral services, if possible. Send flowers or a bereavement basket. Be supportive. 

It is important to know the details of the death and how much the family wishes other employees to know. Share that information to stop rumors. Be prepared by knowing company policies and procedures. You may need to be flexible with personnel policies to accommodate the needs of the bereaved.  Respond appropriately by adjusting work schedules as needed. Know available support systems and make appropriate referrals. Provide ongoing support. Create a resource center with brochures, books, videos, etc. Use your Employee Assistance Program for additional support. Your actions and reactions at a time fo crisis can crate loyal employees. 

What can co-workers do? 
Acknowledge the loss. Send flowers or a card, and attend the funeral services if possible. Offer assistance. Generally, just think of things that would be helpful for you, such as taking over extra paper products, coffee and sodas; cut the grass; and give phone cards so long distance calls can be made to family members. It really isn't difficult; you just have to reach out to your friend. In addition to some of these things, here are a few more suggestions: 

  • Offer to just listen. Grieving people need to talk about what has happened as they try to make sense of what the future holds for them.
  • Just let them know you care, but avoid clichés such as; "It is God's will," or "A least he didn't suffer." While your intent is pure, these words are not comforting. The best thing to say is, "I don't know what to say. I wish I could make things better but I can't. Just know I am here for you."
  • Leave invitations to talk. Don't try to find something positive in the loss. Loss hurts. Listen and then listen again. You can't hear if you are doing all of the talking and your friends just needs to be heard. Don't be embarrassed if tears come. Everyone cries. Some cry outside and some cry inside. Don't make the grieving person feel like he or she has to apologize for loving someone and don't apologize for your tears either. You are both human. Remember important days such as the anniversary date of the death, the holidays, or a special birthday. You might consider getting a group of co-workers to help with holiday decorations, etc. Be there. Continue to be there. Grief resurfaces at unexpected times. Just encourage your co-worker and listen some more.A grieving person feels as though the world has been lost. Losing a loved one is enough, but losing friends and support compounds the feelings of isolation, doom and "What's the use?"

An appropriate response to grief strengthens the relationship between employers, employees, and co-workers. It takes so very little to help. Remember that just your presence sends a message of compassion and caring that is needed.

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