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How to help employees handle grief at work

We speak with grief counsellor Anita Hoare about how to best approach this difficult, but essential, subject.
Published 4 Jun 2021
11 min read

Content warning: this article discusses topics relating to death and loss.

As far as difficult work conversations go, death is right up there with the most confronting topics that you could raise with your colleagues. Bereavement and loss is something that everyone will go through in their life, yet in many ways death remains a taboo subject that often goes unmentioned around the office.

As much as we’d like to ignore it, grief follows those who are experiencing it to the workplace. As we spend over a third of our lives at work – we can’t always leave our personal life events at the office door.

There’s a misunderstanding surrounding grief that people can move on from it at some point. The reality is that everyone experiences grief differently and although the pain of loss can grow gentler, people who have been through loss will know that it’s more about adapting to the absence of their loved one, than ‘moving on’.

There’s no reason why workplaces can’t be soft places to land for people going through this adaptation process. Employers, HR managers and teams alike can take steps to prepare for these kinds of events. We spoke to Anita Hoare, Grief Counsellor at the Australian Centre for Bereavement and Grief to talk about how best to approach this difficult, but essential, subject.

What’s the first thing to do when I find out an employee has had a person close to them pass away?

An employee may be absent from work, you might hear their news from a contact or they might send you an email. However you find out about your employee’s loss, it can be difficult to know how to respond.

The best thing to do is to immediately reach out and acknowledge the situation. Understand that they have a lot on, but flag that you are available to support them in whatever way they need. As they may not be ready to respond, it’s also best during the early stages to send them a gift that signals your support. This could be as general as flowers, or more personalised.

“It could be something really practical like a meal delivery service or a gift voucher,” says Anita. “If their partner died and they were normally the one who took care of the gardening, sending gardening services could be a really helpful gift.”

Is there someone who the bereaved person has a close or good relationship with in the team? This may be a better person to pass on information than the business owner or HR manager. Having one person take care of communication could also help clarify things.

You could have a designated person – not necessarily a HR person – it could be someone within the organisation that that person [the bereaved] has got a connection with. They could be the conduit, so they might feed information up and then feed information back down so that it’s not 10 different people sending different messages.”

Don’t expect that the person will come back to you straight away, especially in those first few days following a death. “Just know that the [bereaved] person’s head’s going to be in a different world, at least until the funeral.”

Advise of essential information

When a loved one dies, things can be very chaotic for the grieving person. There can be a lot of paperwork and administration falling in on an individual at a time when they’re least likely to want (or able) to deal with it.

Sometimes people get hit with all kinds of paper,” says Anita. “So sending a straightforward email with all the details they need can be extremely helpful.”

Part of supporting someone from your team who is grieving, especially in those early stages, is to just make things as simple as possible for them. After you’ve acknowledged their loss and shared your condolences, communicate the practical details about work as clearly as possible. Anita recommends having an information package prepared for this kind of scenario. “You want them to know that the bases are covered,” says Anita. “Share some kind of information package so that they’re not questioning about what they need to do now.”

The package might include:

  • Contact details about the business’ Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • What kind of bereavement leave they receive and how this is processed
  • Details as to whether they will need to submit a doctors certificate
  • Contact details of the business’ HR Manager if they have any questions

“I think that an EAP is a really great one to include, so let people know how to access that. Bereavement counselling just because someone’s bereaved isn’t necessarily a good thing, but the more support that the bereaved person feels they’ve got, and having an understanding of the networks around them – that can be really good.”

What is an EAP?

An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provides 24/7 support over the phone, face-to-face or online for employees. These confidential conversations with trained counsellors are free for employees to access, providing an extremely helpful resource to employees who may be grieving or experiencing any other hardships. Did you know that Employment Hero has an EAP as part of our HR platform? Learn more about this helpful resource.

Don’t hesitate

Following the news of a passing, people often feel self-conscious about reaching out to someone who is grieving. You might be thinking, what if I say the wrong thing? What if I make the situation worse? What if I don’t know what to say in the moment? The truth is that the worst thing you can do is ignore the person experiencing grief.

“We don’t do grief very well in our culture,” says Anita. “Many people won’t talk to the person experiencing bereavement because they don’t want them to get upset.” Everyone handles grief differently and are at different stages of acceptance. If you’re not sure what to say, just work with them at the point that they are at, and keep it simple. You could say ‘we’re here if you need us, let us know if or when you’re up for talking and we’ll be in touch in another few weeks.’ This takes the pressure off the bereaved person from making the first step.”

“If you’re hesitant about communicating with the bereaved person, they might start second guessing and wondering if you’re going to act weirdly about it. I think being as transparent and upfront as possible is good. If you’ve never lost anyone all you might say is – ‘Look I’ve never lost anyone, all I can do is offer you my absolute compassion’ – and that’s real.”

Avoid minimising and making promises

There are a few important things to avoid when communicating with staff who are grieving. Whilst it’s important not to hesitate to be in touch as an employer, take these considerations with you into the conversation.

Comparison

No one likes to see their colleagues upset. When we talk to someone who we know is feeling down, we often look to put them at ease by finding some common ground. This empathetic approach may work for some scenarios, but in this situation it’s likely to minimise the person’s experience. “A client of mine once said, ‘someone told me when my husband died that their cat died so they understand how I’m feeling’ – don’t presume to know how somebody feels,” says Anita. “People want their experience not to be minimised or co-opted or trivialised in any way. There’s something very validating in someone just listening and being there.”

Platitudes

A platitude is a meaningless statement which can invalidate a person’s feelings. This includes sayings like ‘it could have been worse’ to someone who has had a bad day. The overused statement is unhelpful and likely to offend the receiver. There are many platitudes that relate to death and grieving, be cautious of statements like;

  • They had a good innings.
  • Time heals all wounds.
  • Everything will be ok.
  • They are in a better place.
  • They wouldn’t want you to be sad.
  • This too shall pass.

Promises

Grief can make us feel very uncomfortable. We may want to make the person feel better by any means possible. It can be tempting to make promises that, in reality, we can’t fulfil. Don’t reach to offer promotions, bonuses, gifts, deliveries or big supportive gestures. These might be a nice idea, but if they don’t materialise you’re likely to cause further upset.

When people are bereaved they are very raw and sensitive, so they will be watching for any weirdness in others,” says Anita. “It’s really important that you don’t offer or promise anything that can’t be delivered, because this will be just another loss of faith and trust.”

“If you make all these promises and then half of that doesn’t get done – they will remember what doesn’t get done rather than what does. We’ve all been in that boat where we’ve been through something tough and someone says ‘I’ll be around’ or ‘I’ll do this’ and they don’t – it’s another slap and another hurt.”

Often we’re really rubbish at sitting with distress in others or in ourselves so there’s that tendency to fill that space with offers or promises that are well meaning – but if there’s any slight percentage that you can’t deliver on that stuff, just don’t say it. Stick with the truth.”

Understand different grieving styles

Did you know that there are two different grieving styles? In order to cope with the experience, people often fall into or move between two camps;

Intuitive Griever

An intuitive griever is more likely to visibly show how they are feeling, and may experience powerful waves of emotions throughout their working day. Intuitive grievers may feel more comfortable expressing or discussing their emotions. As a culture we may be more expectant to seeing this kind of grief from a bereaved person.

Instrumental Griever

An instrumental griever is less likely to outwardly express their emotions. They may not display the ‘expected’ signs of grief, like crying or becoming visibly upset. They are more comfortable in expressing their grief by doing something – like taking on physical work, beginning a new project or throwing themselves back into their work.

“An instrumental griever is someone like Lindy Chamberlain or the McCanns – you may think that they’re not looking as sad as you feel they should.” This style of grief can lead to stigma, as others may feel that the grieving person is not behaving ‘properly’ in the situation. It’s important to understand that there’s no ‘right’ way to grieve and this style is perfectly normal. When we can recognise these styles, we can more easily help our colleagues return to work.

How can we help a grieving person return to work?

As well as considering whether your employee is an instrumental or intuitive griever, there are plenty of small things you can do to make an employee’s return to work more comfortable. “Some people want to get back to work really fast and that’s ok,” explains Anita. “Most people don’t want to believe that grief takes a long time, but grief takes a long time.”

Be gentle with them about your expectations, and be prepared for a few failed attempts at returning. Anita explains that it’s ok to acknowledge if the person isn’t coping. You can always recognise that returning to work for a full day may have been a bit ambitious, and suggest that maybe a morning tea with their immediate team or working a few half days may be a better approach.

This is where that support person within the organisation can be a really helpful thing for the grieving person. “Some people will get to their desk and panic because they can’t remember their password. That can be tough because their brains are overloaded with thoughts of ‘how am I going’ or ‘am I going to cry’?”

“Have that safety person that they can signal to go for a walk, take them for a moment of fresh air or get a coffee. It’s a designated exit strategy if they do get flooded at the desk – these things are really supportive for someone, and allow for those steps back as well as those steps forward.”

What do I do as an employer if a member of my team passes away?

This can be one of the most difficult scenarios an employer or HR manager has to face.

When it comes to communicating the loss to your team – and also ensuring that you too can be supported in this situation – the best course of action can be to bring in a skilled facilitator. “Depending on the capacity of the organisation to support the team I’d probably be getting a skilled facilitator in to organise some kind of coming together or ceremony for the team,” says Anita.

With or without a facilitator, make sure that you are in touch with the family of the employee that has passed. Offer your condolences and then seek their feedback on how they wish for this news to be presented to the organisation. This gives the grieving family some agency over how their information is conveyed.

Communicate the news to your team in a face-to-face meeting if possible. If your business has a distributed workforce, hold a video conference and make sure that your camera is on, but allow others to turn theirs off. At the end of this meeting pass on your EAP details or local mental health support hotline numbers. Be flexible with giving your team some time to absorb the shock of the news.

In his blog on the matter, Joris Luijke shares this fantastic letter template for following up with your team following this initial meeting;

Hi team, I know this is a very sad time. Please reach out to me or [insert HR] at any time. We are here for you and I know you will be here for each other as well.

Feel free to take the rest of the day off or if you’d like we have this Zoom room available to connect together. [if in person, say this: free to head home for the rest of the day or take the day off, or of course, you can stay here. I have booked [insert room] as a private space for us as a team].

We will gather again as a team at the end of the week and share ideas on how we can remember [insert name] and support their family.

I will send more details about the funeral arrangements when they are available. Please remember you can contact our EAP resources at [insert link] anytime.

Please take good care.

A few days later, bring the team back together with your facilitator for a ceremony to formally acknowledge the person that has passed. At this time your company can grieve as a collective.

If meeting in person, Anita recommends forming a circle and inviting people to share any memories they have of the person. It can be as simple as remembering that the person loved daggy cat videos or as detailed as recalling a time when they supported someone during a project.

Sharing memories and storytelling can be a great way to work through grief and provide comfort. During this ceremony you can work together to decide on a memorial gesture – this could include planting a tree if the person loved gardening, donating to a cause that the person was passionate about or starting a new tradition in the workplace based on something they loved to do.

It’s not about moving on, it’s about growing

“There’s something that we call the dual process model which shows how people adapt to grief,” explains Anita. “It’s about doing two things at once. So one area is feeling the ‘loss’ part of the experience, and the other is feeling the ‘restoration’ part of the experience – which is related to the rest of life.”

During the ‘loss’ part of the grieving process, the person will generally be thinking a lot about their loved one that has passed, they may be looking at photos or trying to feel closer to them. During the ‘restoration’ part of the process they may be trying to connect to life or working on goals. “Most people tend to be in one camp or the other, but we know that there’s an oscillation between these states that happens during grief.”

A common misconception is that bereaved people will, at some point, move on from grief. What actually happens is that people continue this dual process model indefinitely. Grief doesn’t have a structured end point – instead of fading away, Anita says that people ‘grow around’ the experience. “You’re going to change around your grief and learn to incorporate it into your life rather than minimise it so that it’s no longer a part of your life. We don’t talk about ‘moving on’, ‘getting over’ or anything like that – we talk about growing around your grief.”

Grieving is a part of working life

Grieving and loss are sadly an inevitable part of working life. As an employer or HR manager, it’s a situation you never want to prepare for. But having this knowledge of how grieving works will help you provide the best support to your team when they need your care and leadership most.

Knowing how to communicate, understanding different styles of grieving, and creating safe spaces for your employees to grieve will ultimately lead to a healthier and stronger team. “They talk about a village raising a child,” says Anita. “I think a village also helping someone with bereavement is a good thought.”

Isabelle Comber
People Specialist - Employment Hero
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