Managing Employees Through Grief

Today’s post is a guest contribution from Adam Menne, a senior director of technical solutions at UKG who also serves as a chaplain outside of work. This article is part of The Workforce Institute’s series on coping with grief, and it approaches the topic from a manager’s perspective. Before proceeding, we recommend reading part one of the series, “Laughing Through Tears: How a Supportive Workplace Helps with Grief.”

Barely in my 20s and ready to face the world, I thought that people managing would be a cake walk. Soon after beginning my role as a new manager, my report Stephanie shared that her father had died. As I had been trained, I shared with her our company’s bereavement policy and wished her well.

As I reflect now, more than 20 years later, that interaction was purely a business process experience. Several years later, Stephanie resigned, in part because of my unsupportive and distant management style. I have since learned and committed that I will never treat these situations as business transactions and, instead, address these events as people interactions.

This fundamental change led to a profound difference in how I connected with people in general. This work situation and others have led me on my journey to becoming a chaplain. As a chaplain, my work is to serve others and to treat people as people.

As people managers, we are, at the core, responsible for the employees of which we are entrusted. While at times this can be rather routine and even simple, other times it can be very tricky and even an emotional roller coaster. This complexity can be compounded when, as a manager, you aren’t prepared or even sure how to approach delicate situations. Remember you will not be able to fix this person’s issues. You can, however, impact the overall experience and outcome. I want to share two contrasting perspectives.

The Unsympathetic Manager

Julie, an employee at a software company, had recently lost her son to cancer. Julie approached her manager to discuss the possibility of taking some time off to grieve, her manager didn’t seem sympathetic. The manager asked, “How long do you think you’ll need?” and “Can you just take a few days off and come back to work?” “How are we going to get this critical project done?”

Understandably, Julie felt hurt and unsupported by her manager’s lack of understanding and impersonal approach. By requesting the needed time off, Julie feel like she was a burden rather than a valued member of the team. After time away, Julie found a different organization that was supportive and more people oriented.

This situation highlights the importance of managers being prepared to offer support and understanding to employees who are dealing with personal crises. By being empathetic, offering resources and support, and avoiding insensitive or dismissive questions, managers can create a more supportive and caring workplace environment for employees who are struggling with grief and other personal challenges.

How This Conversation Should Have Gone

Let’s contrast Julie’s conversation with another real-world situation. Samantha had been working for a marketing agency for several years when her father passed away unexpectedly. She was devastated, lonely, and struggled to cope with the loss of her precious hero. In contrast to Julie’s manager, Samantha’s manager, Lisa, was incredibly supportive throughout the grieving process. She expressed her condolences and instructed Samantha to take as much time off as she needed. In fact, she mandated two weeks and agreed to evaluate the following weeks and months.

Samantha was grateful for the flexibility and was able to take several weeks off to be with her family and attend to personal matters. Lisa also provided Samantha with information about the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) and counseling services, which Samantha found helpful in coping with her grief.

When Samantha returned to work, Lisa checked in with her regularly to see how she was doing and offered additional support as needed. She even helped Samantha adjust her workload so she could ease back into work gradually.

Samantha was touched by Lisa’s compassion and support during such a difficult time. She felt that her manager truly cared about her wellbeing and was grateful for the understanding and flexibility she received. Samantha felt more connected to her company and her coworkers after this experience, knowing that she worked in a supportive and caring workplace.

How to Support Your Employees

Learning from the scenarios above, here are five ways that managers can support their employees who are grieving or dealing with difficult personal situations.

1) Express your condolences. The first step in supporting your employee is to express your condolences. A simple message of sympathy can go a long way in showing your employees that you care and are there for them during this difficult time. You can send a card, an email, or make a phone call to let them know that you are sorry for their loss and are available to help in any way that you can. Be careful to not ask a person that has loss “How can I help,” however. This approach is rarely helpful as the person is already overloaded with stressful decisions and may already be mentally overloaded. Instead, consider what you could do for the person and offer solutions that have binary (yes/no) answers: “Is there anything I can do for you?” or “I see you have a huge project due next week, I would like to assign someone to this project to lead it in your absence, would that help you find space to grieve?” Simple yes/no. It doesn’t take away that person’s importance and still allows them to maintain the little control they are feeling.

2) Be flexible with time off. When an employee loses a family member, they may need time off to grieve and attend to their family’s needs. As an employer, it’s important to be flexible with time off and provide your employees with the time they need to heal. You can offer bereavement leave or allow them to use vacation time to take care of personal matters. Be sure to communicate your company’s policies and procedures clearly so your employee knows what to expect. Also, many employees don’t know the benefits available to them in times of tragedy. This may prove to be a beacon of light in a dark time.

3) Offer support resources. In addition to time off, you can offer your employees support resources to help them cope with their loss. This could include access to an EAP or counseling services. You can also provide information about grief support groups or other community resources that may be helpful. By providing these resources, you’re showing your employees that you care about their wellbeing and are committed to helping them through this difficult time.

4) Check in regularly. Loss can be a lonely and isolating experience, so it’s important to check in with your employees regularly to see how they’re doing. You can schedule regular meetings or check-ins to see how they’re coping and offer any additional support they may need. By staying in touch, you’re showing your employees that you’re there for them and care about their recovery. Additionally, this can be a relief in knowing that they are in a safe space. When there is an extended period of quiet from your employer, staff can begin wondering if their employment is safe, adding stress and anxiety in an already tough period.

5) Be sensitive to triggers. Even after some time has passed, your employee may still be grieving and may be triggered by reminders of their loss. Be sensitive to these triggers and avoid discussing sensitive topics or bringing up the loss in conversation unless your employee initiates the discussion. By being mindful of their feelings, you can create a supportive and empathetic workplace environment.

It is crucial for managers to be prepared to handle delicate situations when employees are dealing with personal crises. Providing support, being empathetic, offering resources, and avoiding insensitive or dismissive questions can make all the difference in creating a supportive and caring workplace environment. As shown in the contrasting stories of Julie and Samantha, an empathetic and understanding approach can lead to a positive and lasting impact on the employee’s wellbeing, job satisfaction, and overall productivity.

After all, we work to live, not live to work.

Next week, The Workforce Institute at UKG continues our series on grief and work with an article by advisory board member Nanne Finis, RN, MS, chief nurse executive at UKG.