As of mid-April, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than 100,000 deaths worldwide and the infection rate has not even peaked in many communities. Many employees have already and will continue to experience the death of a parent or loved one as a result of the pandemic. Employees will be accelerated into a grief process while battling other stressors including financial hardship, social isolation and managing children at home. Perhaps more than ever before, it is critical for organizations to re-evaluate how grief is handled in the workplace.
Healthy organizations support and acknowledge major life transitions including marriage, the birth of a child, and retirement; bereavement should be no different. Grieving is messy and any grief expert will tell you that the traditional stages (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) are non-linear and shaped by personality and culture. Healthy organizations–including its degree of psychological safety, the meaningful relationships with co-workers and customers, and its alignment with a clear mission/vision–can serve as a supportive environment for a bereaved employee to navigate these stages; this does imply that organization are responsible for “healing” employees but the workplace does have a significant impact on how an employee recovers from grief and loss.
The guidelines below are intended to help leaders create a workplace culture that acknowledges the very real pain of grief and loss while helping individuals maintain productivity and motivation.
1. Re-Evaluate your existing bereavement policies. Grief experts recommend 20 days of bereavement leave for the loss of family members. However, according to the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Paid Leave in the Workplace Survey, the following number of days are allotted on average:
- Death of a spouse or child: 4 days
- Death of a parent, grandparent, domestic partner, sibling, grandchild or foster child: 3 days
- Death of a spouse’s relative or an extended family member: 1-2 days
- Death of a close friend or colleague: most companies don’t extend any leave at all
- Organizations that use these outdated bereavement policies signal to their employees, even if unintentionally, that they value productivity over their personal lives, failing to understand that the two are intertwined. Although grieving is highly individual and some employees may choose to take less time off to grieve for financial and other reasons, do not assume that this should be the norm for your organization.
2. Work with the specific needs of the bereaved employee. Many organizations pressure employees to return to work prematurely which runs several risks: the employee may not meet performance expectations and b) the employee may not feel psychologically safe to discuss their grief because they don’t want to be seen as negative or disruptive. Discuss with the employee what will help them feel both supported and able to maintain a baseline level of performance. It is often best to not give the employee new or highly challenging tasks/projects during this time; grieving employees often benefit from a more flexible work schedule and remote work options during this time. Research shows that grief often leaves the body more vulnerable to sickness and infectious diseases. Be sure to connect the employee with a mental health counselor through EAP and wellness services to help manage the stress and exhaustion that is inherent in the grieving process. Some companies (e.g. US Bank) have created employee assistance funds to assist employees with funeral and medical expenses.
3. Improve your communication skills with the bereaved. We often don’t know what to say to a grieving coworker. Avoid both platitudes (“Time heals everything; This too shall pass; There is a reason for everything”) as well as staying silent, as this can mistakenly signal a lack of care. A simple acknowledgment of one’s pain and that you are thinking of them is most important. Beyond this, make it easy for your grieving coworker: offer to help them with something specific (picking up lunch, with a work assignment, something at home, etc.) and offer specific availability to listen (“I am free for lunch today if you would like to talk about it”).
By providing these resources and support, your organization can continue to build loyalty and trust with that employee. If your organization needs help in developing a bereavement policy, education or general guidance, please contact me.