As an EAP, one of the most common situations we deal with is handling a call from a grieving employee. Everyone suffers death, grief and loss at some point and everyone deals with grief differently. Grief can be all-consuming, an issue that spills over into the workplace long after the precipitating event has passed, particularly if the loss was of a child or a spouse. Supervisors and managers are often uncomfortable in dealing with an employee’s grief and finding the right balance between being compassionate and maintaining work productivity.

Managers can play a key role in helping a grieving employee to heal. Resuming the normal routine of work is part of the healthy recovery process. Knowing something about the various stages or behaviors that are common in the grief process can be helpful in understanding how to support grieving workers.

Here are some supervisor tips for dealing with grief in the workplace:

  • Make contact with your bereaved employee as soon as possible after you learn of their loss. Offer your condolences. Listen and respect confidentiality. Expect sadness and tears.
  • Be prepared. Know your organization’s policy on bereavement and personal time and be ready to explain the policy to the employee.
  • Be as flexible and negotiable as possible in allowing your employee to have the time and space to deal with their loss.
  • Arrange for back-ups and replacements necessary to cover the person’s work during their absence. Ensure that phone calls and e-mail messages are re-directed.
  • Get information on services, funerals and memorials to the person’s colleagues in a timely fashion.
  • If appropriate, help to organize some form of group acknowledgment to support the employee, such as issuing a card or flowers, or planning group attendance at a memorial ceremony.
  • Ensure that support continues when the person returns to work. The first few days may be particularly difficult adjustment.
  • Have back-ups or a buddy system in place when the employee returns to work to provide support and check in with the employee periodically to see how he or she is doing.
  • Consider adjusting the workload. Expect productivity, but be patient and reasonable in your expectations.
  • Be sensitive to the cycle of upcoming holidays or trigger points that might be difficult for the employee.
  • Recognize that other cultures may have customs, rituals or ways of dealing with loss that differ from those to which we are accustomed.
  • Watch for warning signs of prolonged grief and ongoing performance issues, such as poor grooming, severe withdrawal, substance abuse, or other uncharacteristic behaviors might be warning signs.
  • Offer resources for professional help. As a manager, you are in a unique position to observe a need for help and to recommend assistance through a referral to your EAP or appropriate community resources.

Resources for dealing with a grieving employee
Compassionate Friends: When an employee is grieving
Susan M. Heathfield: How to Sympathetically Respond to Employee Bereavement and Grief



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