Grief response for leaders

Learn how to support your employees during loss and while at work. Effective strategies can help employees who are experiencing grief remain productive while they heal. 

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While grief is a natural human response to loss, mental health issues can arise. Effective support can help employees once they return to work. 

Responding at the time of loss

Some of the ways to support a grieving employee at the time of a loss, such as a death in the family, include:

  • Attending the funeral or service.
  • Sending a card or flowers on behalf of the organization or the team.
  • Acknowledging and saying something simple such as "I'm sorry for your loss."
  • Avoiding clichés, such as:
    • You're never given more than you can handle
    • This too will pass
    • You'll get over it
    • It's for the best
    • It's God's will
    • You need to stay busy
    • Time heals all things
    • You must be strong for others
  • Preparing food or dropping by the employee's home.
  • Asking the grieving employee what you can do to help.
  • Being open to the employee's need to talk about their loss.

When the employee returns to work

Managers and co-workers are not expected to take on the role of grief counsellor for an employee who has experienced the loss of a loved one. However, there are ways to be supportive in the workplace.

  • Learn to identify that some employees return to work too soon, and may need more time to sufficiently recover from the loss.
  • Recognize that some employees will find comfort in getting back into a work routine. Don't discourage these employees from returning to work.
  • Be watchful and do what you can to ensure that grieving employees are looking after themselves during the grieving process, by eating well and drinking enough water, as dehydration is common when people are in grief.
  • Briefly but frequently show concern and ask what you can do to help.
  • Ensure the employee has someone at work they can talk to about their loss if they wish to. Ideally, this should occur during break times.
  • Treat the employee as normally as possible.
  • Understand that it is not unusual for someone to experience significant grief for a period of years.
  • It is normal to cry at any time when grieving and it is not usually necessary to try and stop it. If the crying interferes with customer service or the work environment, have a conversation with the employee about where there is a safe and private space they can use to cry. Learn more at Responding to crying and whining
  • Refer the employee to Employee Assistance Program and other supports if appropriate for counseling or other services.

Supporting productivity in times of grief

The most common physical responses to grief are low energy, muscle aches and pains and generalized tension. This may result in employees being unable to cope with work tasks. This can be even more apparent for those who are also experiencing mental health issues. There are approaches that you can use that may help employees remain productive as they go through the natural process of grief from loss.

  • Use Developing employee plans for leaders to discuss with the employee any modifications that can help them do their work.
  • Offer specific, concrete help such as information on bereavement leave and benefit entitlements. When appropriate, offer to help with paperwork associated with medical claims or life insurance policies.
  • If possible, be flexible about time off, especially during the first year of bereavement, keeping in mind that some employees may need more time off than others.
  • Lessen or eliminate pressure by prioritizing a grieving employee's responsibilities and, when possible, reduce their workload for a time with their input.
  • Avoid assigning new tasks or additional responsibilities when the employee is still struggling with grief.

Adapted from Healing Grief at Work: 100 practical ideas after your workplace is touched by loss by Dr. Alan Wolfelt. See Center for Loss and Life Transition.

When an employee dies

When an employee dies, co-workers may experience varying levels of grief and loss. Depending on the reaction of individual co-workers, some of the aforementioned approaches may help. While company policy will likely not allow for co-workers to have leave as a result of the loss, it can be helpful to consider the individual needs of co-workers and some additional strategies:

  • Be in contact and respect the family’s wishes in terms of how much information they want shared and if a service or gathering will be open to co-workers or leaders.
  • Share information with employees. Advise HR and employees who were closest to the deceased before making a general announcement. Share what the family has permitted, including funeral arrangements. If you are planning a workplace memorial or gesture, share that information as well.
  • Let employees know about any employee assistance or grief counselling services that are available.
  • Deal with work issues, including who will be handling the deceased employee’s emails and telephone calls. While it’s best to refrain from immediately recruiting for the employee’s role, have meetings with team members, clients and suppliers to discuss outstanding work. When hiring ensues, respect your team’s need to honour the memory of their co-worker.
  • Follow organizational policy in a sensitive manner to ask family for the return of any company property that was in the possession of the deceased employee and to settle any outstanding payroll or benefits-related matters.

Adapted from HR Management & Compliance by Brianna Young, Estate Planning Attorney, Davis Brown Law Firm, Jana Weiler, Shareholder, Davis Brown Law Firm

Additional resources

The Center for Loss and Life Transition. Books, articles and other resources to help people who are grieving.

Grief in the workplace – a guide for managers. General guidelines for managers to help with grief in the workplace. Courtesy of Duke University: Personal Assistance Services.

Loss and grief. Learn about the responses to grief and ways you can cope after the death of a loved one or another significant loss.

Someone you care about is grieving. Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about is grieving.

Suicide response for leaders. Strategies for supporting employees when a co-worker has died by or attempted suicide. This resource covers return to work for an employee who has attempted suicide. 



Contributors include.articlesDr. Alan WolfeltMary Ann Baynton

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