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  1. Blog
  2. Management
  3. March 27, 2024

Your Guide to Thoughtfully Discussing Grief with Direct Reports

How to offer tangible support

side profile of woman experiencing grief in the workplace
Photo courtesy of Stefan Lobont

Grief is unpredictable. It’s ever-changing and ongoing. The ups and downs are complicated to navigate, especially when work is involved. There’s no universal handbook on how to perfectly comfort someone who’s grieving—everyone processes loss differently. 

As a manager, though, having sensitive, difficult conversations and supporting your employees through hardship comes with the territory of leading a group of humans. Because your team might look to you for guidance on how to handle the situation, figuring out the right thing to say might feel even more delicate and challenging. 

In the U.S., there is no federal bereavement leave policy, meaning employees aren’t guaranteed any time off after the death of a family member or loved one to make arrangements, attend the funeral, and grieve. “If offered at all, the average amount of bereavement leave is three to five days. This is significantly less than many other places, including Canada, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom,” explains Dr. Brittany Bate, a licensed psychologist with expertise in grief and trauma counseling.

The lack of federal policy means the onus falls on each individual company and its leaders to holistically protect its workers and allow them time and space to heal. But the expectations of grief in the workplace are often fraught. “One of the most common misconceptions surrounding grief in the workplace involves the expectation that employees should return to their normal productivity level soon after a loss,” Bate says. 

Through support and genuine care, managers can help ameliorate this immense pressure. 

Read more: A Word-for-Word Guide to Discussing Mental Health with Direct Reports

How grief affects employees in the workplace

Shock, anger, guilt, regret, anxiety, fear, and loneliness are just a few of the emotions a grieving employee might cycle through. 

Bate says, “Alongside grief, one can expect challenges with attention, concentration, sleep, motivation, anxiety, panic, memory, irritability, and mood. While managing all of this, it’s reasonable to consider that a person's work performance may not be the same for quite some time.” 

A significant loss can lead to changes in a person’s usual behavior. They might become withdrawn or easily frustrated. Receiving feedback or criticism might feel especially triggering, causing them to react defensively or take things more personally. It’s expected, and understandable, for productivity to decrease overall. 

More common symptoms or signs that might occur when an employee is experiencing grief include:

  • Physical symptoms: Grief can have physical manifestations, such as fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, or changes in appetite or sleep patterns that may greatly impact an employee's ability to perform their job effectively.

  • Social withdrawal: Grieving employees tend to withdraw from social interactions or isolate themselves at work. Engaging in small talk or participating in team activities may feel particularly draining for them.

  • Strained communication: Grieving workers might communicate less frequently or effectively than usual. They might avoid conversations or interactions with coworkers and be less responsive to emails and calls. 

It's important to remember everyone grieves differently, and not all employees will exhibit these symptoms in the same way or to the same degree. The effects of grief come in waves. Employees can be easily triggered by reminders of their loss or emotional topics. One minute they might seem content, and the next minute they might withdraw and start tearing up. Although some people welcome work as a distraction, meeting deadlines and attending meetings realistically isn’t the top priority for most grieving employees. 

Read more: You Can Take Time Off After a Miscarriage. Here’s How to Do It.

How to navigate conversations about grief at work

Bate says the most important thing you can do as a manager is to directly address the loss. Don’t avoid the topic altogether out of fear you’ll say the wrong thing or assume that because your direct report isn’t talking about their grief, that they’re doing okay. Grief can be uncomfortable to navigate for everyone involved, but supporting your employees, or providing resources for them to find adequate support, is a hallmark of good management. Be patient, be human, and be empathetic. 

“Managers should acknowledge grief in a 1:1 space and offer the employee explicit understanding as to what the company is able to offer in terms of support,” Bate says. “Remind the employee of both the official bereavement and unofficial support policies available to them.”

Here’s an example of how you can open the conversation:

“I heard about the passing of your (family member/friend/partner), and I am so sorry for your loss. Whether you need time off, flexibility with your schedule or tasks, or someone to talk to, please don't hesitate to reach out to me. Your wellbeing is my top priority right now, and I want to remind you of our bereavement policy of (insert details of the policy, such as number of days or any specific requirements). If you need more time than that, let’s talk about how we can make that happen. I’m happy to take some projects off your plate as well.

If you'd be more comfortable with it, I can communicate with the team to let them know about your loss and how they can support you. However, if you prefer to keep this information private, I completely understand and will respect your wishes.”

If they agree to allow you to share the news, you can simply communicate to the team, “(Name) had a loss in their family and will be out for (amount of time).” 

If they want to keep the news private, you say, “(Name) is taking some personal time and will return (date). You can reach out to me with any questions or requests in their absence.

If your employee comes to you first with the news, you can respond like this:

“I'm incredibly sorry to hear about the passing of your (family member/friend/partner). Please accept my deepest condolences to you and your family during this difficult time. Your wellbeing is of utmost importance to us, and we’re here to support you in any way we can. 

In terms of bereavement leave, our company policy allows for (insert details of bereavement leave policy, such as number of days or any specific requirements). Given the circumstances, please take all the time you need to be with your family and take care of yourself. If you need any additional support or accommodations during this time, whether it's extending your leave or adjusting your workload, please let me know.”

Bate advises initiating conversations by expressing condolences, offering support, and creating a safe space for employees to share their feelings. “Using empathetic and nonjudgmental language is crucial. Avoid clichés or minimizing the grieving person's experience,” she says.

While some phrases may be well-intentioned, they can be perceived as dismissive or insensitive. Bate says to avoid these phrases throughout the conversation:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.” This phrase can minimize the significance of the loss and imply that there is some greater purpose or plan behind the person's suffering, which may not be comforting to someone who is grieving.

  • “At least they’re not in pain anymore” or “At least they’re in a better place now.” While it's true that the person may no longer be suffering, these phrases can come across as minimizing the grief and pain of those left behind. It’s also best to avoid any language with religious undertones.

  • “It’ll get easier.” While it's natural to want to offer reassurance, telling someone that their grief will eventually fade can feel invalidating to their current emotions. Everyone grieves differently, and for many people, the pain may never completely go away.

  • “I understand.” While you may have experienced your own loss or something similar, it's important to acknowledge that everyone's grief is unique. Saying you understand can inadvertently dismiss the employee's unique experience and emotions.

Instead, these are all appropriate phrases to use:

  • “I'm so sorry for your loss.”

  • “If you’d like to share anything about (name) with me, I’d love to hear it, anytime.” 

  • “What can I take off your plate?” 

  • “It's okay to not be okay. Take your time and process your emotions at your own pace.”

  • “Would you like me to communicate anything specific to the team about your situation?”

  • “I know this is a difficult time. I’m here to support you in any way I can.”

  • “Take care of yourself and prioritize your wellbeing during this time. We can adjust deadlines and responsibilities as needed.”

How to navigate a grieving employee's return to work

If someone comes back to work a few days after a loved one passes, don’t pry, gossip, or ask questions about why they’re back so soon. People who are grieving may also be dealing with financial responsibilities, like covering funeral expenses or paying unexpected bills. For dual-income couples, losing a partner may eliminate a significant portion of the family’s income, requiring a more immediate return to work out of necessity.

Respect the privacy and boundaries of employees who are grieving. Avoid pressuring them to share more than they’re comfortable with and refrain from sharing personal information without their consent. You can simply say, “We’re so glad to have you back, and we’re all here for you,” upon their return.

Follow up and check in periodically to see how they’re coping and if they need any additional support. When you do check in, Bate says to ask, “How are you doing today?” in lieu of simply “how are you,” to acknowledge that grief is ongoing and emotions can fluctuate day-to-day.

What are some more tangible ways managers can offer support to employees who are grieving?

There’s no doubt simply being present and offering a listening ear can be comforting. But besides verbal and emotional support, extending tangible support can be a huge relief.

Offering more remote work, adjusting workloads, or eliminating low-priority tasks, for example, can ease some of the burden for grieving employees. You can even step in to help manage email communications and ensure their inbox doesn’t overflow. “Tailor your approach based on individual needs, respecting differences in grieving styles, cultural backgrounds, and personal preferences,” Bate says. “Encourage open communication and actively listen to employees' needs.”

If you want to do something more personal, you can coordinate a written card and flower arrangement delivery from your whole team, offer to provide cooked meals for the employee and their family, organize child care or pet care, or make a donation to a cause in their name.

Bate says it’s so important for managers to foster a supportive environment by promoting mental health resources, destigmatizing help-seeking behavior, and leading by example in prioritizing self-care. It’s best to be proactive in establishing support and benefits for employees in case they experience a loss rather than waiting until something happens to create protocols.

“Communicate openly about available support including counseling and employee assistance program (EAP) service and emphasize the importance of seeking help. Hiring a mental health consultant to provide training on recognizing signs of distress can empower employees to take proactive steps in managing their mental health during times of grief,” she says. “Keep checking in. Ask how the person is doing, and remind them you’re there to support in whatever ways might be helpful.”

Read more: The Direct Report Relationship: How Managers Can Grow Employees & Build Trust

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