How to Deal with Grief in the Workplace

31 Aug ‘22
5 min
Work performance
Editorial Board OpenUp
Gecontroleerd door dietician Judith Klenter

Imagine: An employee knocks on your door to tell you that she’s moving house and would like to take some time off to get things sorted out. You’re familiar with the company policy on this, so you give the employee a day’s paid leave. Then you get a call from one of the team leaders. A member of his team has lost a loved one. Again, you’re familiar with the company policy here: four days paid leave. But that feels crazy. Because grief doesn’t have a set timeline. You’d like to do more for this employee than just give them some days off. But what?


The idea that employees need to leave their personal problems at home is a thing of the past. It’s been replaced with the belief that it’s impossible, and even undesirable, to keep your work and home life completely separate. This means that there is more and more space for grief in the workplace. For HR professionals that raises its own set of challenges. Because supporting a colleague while they’re moving house is one thing. But supporting a colleague while they’re grieving? That’s much more complex. What can you as an HR manager do to help a grieving employee? 


How does grief work?


Grieving is the act of processing a significant loss. During this process we adapt our lives – including our expectations, dreams and plans – to the new situation. When someone mentions grief, you usually think about the death of a loved one. But we also grieve other significant losses. For example, a divorce or losing the opportunity to have a child. 


According to a widely supported theory by British psychiatrists Bowlby and Parkes grief occurs in four stages. 


  1. Shock and numbness. This is the stage you find yourself in straight after a loss. The situation seems unreal.
  2. Yearning and searching. The grieving person longs for the person who is gone. This stage is often combined with crying, anger, fear, anxiety, reduced concentration and confusion. Some people experience regret.
  3. Disorganization and despair. The grieving person acknowledges the loss: The person isn’t coming back. Feelings of apathy, despair, hopelessness and dejection arise. Many people withdraw and lose interest in the things they used to enjoy.
  4. Reorganization and recovery. In the fourth stage, the grieving person rediscovers their zest for life. They start to enjoy themselves again and feel invested in the future. In this stage, they regain a new state of “normal”. 


Grief is a very personal and individualized process. Everyone experiences it differently. This means, the above stages don’t show up the same for everyone. It’s not linear and you can go backwards – you might jump from stage two to stage four, and then back to stage two a few months later. The intensity of grief is also different for everybody. Even though the loss of an elderly parent, for example, might be easier for some people to accept, for another person it might feel like the end of the world. 


Supporting employees through their grieving process: The practical part


When an employee is dealing with loss – whether it’s caused by death, divorce, finding out they can’t have children or another type of loss – you’ll want to put a few practical measures in place: a leave of absence, informing colleagues and associates, and of course making a phone call or sending a card and flowers. These can be established in a grief protocol, which can serve as a reminder to HR. Regarding the points below, always consult with the team leader or manager of the colleague affected and discuss who is responsible for which actions. 


1.    Leave of absence


When an employee loses a member of their direct family, they’re officially given four days off. But that doesn’t apply for divorce or other types of loss. However, as already mentioned, everyone grieves differently. Some people want to get back to work as quickly as possible – because it provides a distraction or the routine helps them cope better – other people need more time and space.


Requiring that an employee goes back to work after four days may be counterproductive. According to grief experts, most people need at least twenty days off following the death of a close family member. 


Statutory leave rules in case of bereavement


When an immediate family member dies, employees have a right to take compassionate leave. This is enshrined in the law. The intention is that this leave should be used to organize practical matters. It applies whether the family member is a parent or child, a sibling, a spouse or a registered partner. The employee reports how much leave they will be taking. The employer is not allowed to refuse reasonable requests. Usually, this leave lasts from a few hours to a few days.


After this, it’s known as “special leave“. Special leave is usually governed according to the labor agreement, but in the absence of a (mandatory) labor agreement, the company rules. 


Straight after a loss, most people are in stage one: shock, numbness, and denial. In most cases, this often continues until the funeral, especially in the case of death. Compassionate leave carries you through this period, but it is usually not long enough to fully process grief. 


2.   Informing colleagues and associates


Everyone experiences grief differently: bear this in mind when it comes to informing colleagues and associates about the loss an employee is struggling with. Make sure to ask the grieving employee what they’re comfortable with. You could do this yourself or you could turn to a team leader or colleague who has a good relationship with the person. 


To give the grieving employee a helping hand, you can offer specific suggestions, such as sending an email to the team, to other colleagues within the organization and to third parties. 


3.   Reaching out


Let the employee know that you and your colleagues are there for them. Send a bunch of flowers and a card that everyone has signed. If a death has occurred, you could also ask the grieving employee if it would be okay for close colleagues to come to the funeral.


Particularly in the first year after a death, be considerate. Give the employee some extra attention around special occasions. For example, this could be the deceased person’s birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, and the anniversary of the death. Show the employee some support by sending them a card or a message, or suggesting that you grab coffee together. 


4.   Consult with the team leader or manager


As well as it being your job to support employees to the best of your abilities, that’s also the job of team leaders and managers. Make sure that you’re keeping in touch with them about the grieving employee.


Recommend that the manager reaches out to the employee by calling them or – if the employee is okay with it – stopping by their home. In addition, have them tell the employee that their work assignments will be covered by their colleagues, but that they can still come back whenever they feel ready, and that the team will be delighted to see them again. 


The manager can also present the grieving person with a specific proposal for returning to work: “If you’re ready to come back to work, would you like to come back for an hour at first and then slowly build it back up? You could also work half your usual hours for the first few weeks if you want.” 


5.   Organize a workshop or call on a seasoned expert


Team leaders might also find it difficult to navigate this situation. They might not know what to say or their own grief might come to the surface. In order to help them support their colleagues as well as possible, while keeping their own emotions in check, it might help to call on a seasoned expert. This could be someone within the company who has dealt with grief – a long time ago – and is willing to share their experiences, or it could be an external expert


The psychologists at OpenUp are great for this. Feel free to call them up if you have any questions. We’ve also developed a program that can help people to better understand grief. Part of that program is a module entitled “How to support someone who’s grieving?”  


6.   Suspend performance reviews


The time you spend processing grief – however long it lasts – isn’t a good time for performance reviews. The loss will have an impact on the employee’s work performance. What’s more, performance reviews often put stress on the person that they aren’t in a position to handle. Therefore, after discussing this with the employee, it’s best to suspend them. 


Here’s what other companies do:

  • Google gives employees 50 percent of their partner’s income for a decade after they die
  • Mastercard and Facebook offer a standard twenty days unpaid leave when a loved one passes away


7.   Make the return to work as smooth as possible


Previously, we published an article about how you as an HR manager can make the return-to-work process after a period of burnout or depression run as smoothly as possible. The lessons from this article also apply when an employee is returning to work following a bereavement. 


Supporting employees through the grieving process: the emotional part


In addition to practical support, anyone who is grieving needs emotional support. Work relationships are often more superficial than private relationships outside of work, but that doesn’t mean they don’t play a role in the emotional side of processing grief. Here are some tips: 


1.    Say something! 


Think again if you’ve decided that the grieving employee needs to be distracted at work and won’t want to be reminded of their loss. Grieving people actually need support and they need to know that other people are thinking about them and that they care. 


Dutch marketing organization SIRE even ran a campaign on this. “Death is part of our lives. Yet more than one in three people never talk about it. However, it’s actually valuable to reflect on death, talk about it, and help each other. Engaging in the conversation connects us to others and enriches our lives. It brings us peace, helps us to grieve and improves the quality of our lives.” And according to SIRE, one of the places this conversation belongs is in the office. 


Examples of things you can say:

  • “I’m happy to see you. We’re all here for you.” 
  • “I don’t really know what to say.” It’s okay to be honest about this. That’s always better than not saying anything. 
  • “I’d love to try and make your life as easy as possible at the moment. How can we do that for you?” 
  • “How are you doing today?” This way you’re acknowledging the employee’s grief and inviting them to give an honest answer. “How’s it going?” on the other hand is too general and often difficult to answer.
  • Give the employee the opportunity to talk to you, but leave the decision up to them: “I’m just going to work in the lobby/in the coffee shop on the corner. I’ll be there until noon. If you’d like to come by and chat, you can, but don’t feel obliged.”


There are also a few things it’s better not to say. 

  • “It’s a good thing you’re still so young. You’ll get pregnant again in no time.” This is not a helpful thing to say to somebody who has lost a child or had a miscarriage.  Remember that a grieving process is involved too. 
  • “Maybe you should…” As a colleague or manager, you might have a tendency to want to find a solution. Understand that you can’t here. This means practical tips are usually unhelpful.
  • “Time heals all wounds.” A classic culprit.
  • “I know how you’re feeling.” Even if you’ve had a similar experience, grief is so personal that you can never truly know how the other person is feeling. Instead, you could say, “I’ve experienced something similar. So, I know how hard it can be.”
  • “Is there anything I can do for you?” is a difficult question to answer. You’re most likely to get a “no, thank you” as a response. That’s why it’s better to offer something specific: “I’m making a lasagna today. It would be no trouble to make an extra bowl. Do you want me to bring one round later?” or “Would you like me to grab some groceries for you?” or “Do you need a babysitter for your children or dog?”


2.   Be patient and open


There will come a time when the grieving person wants to pick their life back up again. That moment will arrive at different times for every person. And it’s almost always going to be trial and error. That’s why it’s so important to be patient. Grief can suddenly flare up again. Since it’s not a linear process, the employee might be super productive one week and too miserable to answer a single email the next. 


Harvard Business Review has this to say: “You definitely don’t want your manager to join you in your hopelessness. You want them to keep believing in you without putting you under too much pressure. This is a difficult task for managers, but you can definitely learn it! It involves the skill of listening and giving people the permission to be both a functioning employee and a sad, grieving person. 


3.   Be extra mindful of the needs of grieving managers


Stigmas relating to grief – feeling that grief is a private matter and that showing grief openly the workplace is unprofessional – are strongest within leadership positions, in prestigious organizations, and in competitive work environments, Harvard Business Review explains. This means that people who work in places like this are more likely to withdraw into their grief.


If a manager or team leader is dealing with grief, it’s especially important to keep an eye on them. As an HR manager, you can do this by regularly asking if you can help out, checking in to see if they need shorter working days or days off, and by reaching out at key moments.


Laszlo Bock, CEO at Humu, decided to be open about his loss. When he went back to work after his brother’s death, he shared his experience with the company: “I knew that my brother’s death had impacted me. I didn’t want them to be asking themselves, ‘What’s wrong with Laszlo?’. I didn’t want them to worry about me.” The result was that he was overwhelmed with support, compassion, and appreciation. Bock’s openness also made it easier for other people to talk about their struggles. “If you want to create an environment where people can be open about their grief, then the best thing you can do is lead by example.” 


4.   Recognize post-traumatic growth


Various studies show that grief can have a regenerative effect. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, had this to say about combining grief and work after losing her husband: “Having a close encounter with mortality can change your life.” 


This phenomenon is known as post-traumatic growth. It often results in a regained appreciation for life, hope, deeper connections with others and the desire to get the best out of life. 


Post-traumatic growth can cause employees to develop a new attitude towards life, their work, and their work activities. If and when that takes place, varies from person to person. Good managers should recognize this and support employees through it. They’ll listen and make space for these new developments. A good way to bring up this conversation is by saying: “I’ve noticed that lately you’ve become more…” 


5.   Acknowledge that you’re not a psychologist


It can take a lot out of you when you’re dealing with a grieving employee. Obviously, you want what’s best for your employees, but there are limits to what you can do. You’re not a psychologist, after all. 


It doesn’t hurt to get help from an external psychologist. Both for yourself, if you want to learn more about dealing with grieving employees and for the grieving employees themselves, who could probably use some support through their grieving process.