Properly Managing a Grieving Employee

April 13, 2018
After your employee experiences a major loss, they’ll face a long road to recovery. Here are some effective ways to get them back on their feet.

If one of your employees has lost a loved one, he or she will have a long road ahead to personal healing, and working back to the point where he or she can work efficiently again.

Major losses not only affect the worker, they also affect the climate and productivity of your workplace. Helping your employee recover is not only the humane thing to do, it’s also going to be helpful for your shop going forward.

Director for the Center of Loss & Life Transition, Dr. Alan Wolfelt says that approaching these situations with compassion is the best way to start the healing process. The Fort Collins, Colo.–based company offers training and counseling sessions for those affected by a major loss, and Wolfelt is also the author of the book Healing Grief at Work.

Wolfelt shares his best tips to get an employee through these difficult times.

If somebody’s grieving in the workplace, it’s best to surround him or her with a culture of compassion. That means having some knowledge and awareness of what a person experiences when he or she enters into grief. For someone to integrate loss into his or her life requires that the person takes grief and allows it to become mourning. Since humans can’t turn their emotions on and off, this requires sensitivity in the work environment. The more we can affirm and acknowledge that an employee has been affected by a loss, the easier it will be for that employee to eventually return to full productivity.

One thing to look at when assisting someone is the extensive cost. If you don’t support someone in the workplace, and he or she doesn’t see a softening of their grief symptoms over time, he or she isn’t going to be as effective. You need to be there in terms of acknowledgement of someone being affected by a loss, and make your presence available and provide support.

Many times after a worker experiences a loss, he or she comes back into the workplace, but nobody talks about it. The more we can break down that pretense and acknowledge the loss and be sensitive to that, the more he or she will, over time, return to full productivity.

An important part to communicating with your employee is avoiding trite cliches that we’re notorious for as a culture. Mourners are often told things like, “time heals all wounds,” or, “think of all you still have to be thankful for.” Comments like these are not constructive. Instead they hurt because they diminish the very real and painful loss of a unique person.

Let your co-worker know that you are available to listen and that you are thinking about them. It can be very appropriate to say, “I’m sorry that your mother died, and I want to know that I’m thinking about you.” Your physical presence and commitment to listen without judging are critical helping tools.

As a manager, you need to be flexible when assigning duties. There’s going to be a reduced ability for him or her to concentrate and take in new information. Roughly 75 percent of mourners have a reduced ability to concentrate well beyond their allowed bereavement leave. Grief is a form of presenteeism, which describes the negative consequences of coming to work if a worker isn’t functioning well.

It’s important to be sensitive to the fact that your worker may function a little slower mentally and physically, because a loss can create lethargy. They may not have the physical energy to work at full capacity after a major life transition, and may need to take 15–20 minute breaks to lay down and rest from time to time.

Another thing to be alert to is that many mourners will have grief bursts. There can be periods where he or she is functioning fine, and one day he or she just has a difficult day and experiences a breakdown. Maybe there’s a piece of music that comes on when they’re working on a car, or a certain phrase that sets him or her off. You need to be supportive that those will occur.

Many small businesses will have EAPs, or employee assistance programs, to counsel employees. If you don’t, it’s good to have appropriate referral resources. An employer can locate those through local hospices and funeral homes, and they can make a list of resources for anyone that does need individual counseling.

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