For the 52 million people who have experienced loss during the pandemic, returning to the workplace means the heavy presence of grief. Workers have found an even deeper resilience than many thought they had—but grief doesn’t expire when social distancing guidelines relax.
Employers are now navigating how to manage grief in the workplace, working to understand how to best support their employees who may be moving from grieving loss privately to grieving in a public environment.
As experts in grief work and people who both lost parents at a young age, we’re committed to changing the way we all approach, discuss, and support others through grief. Here are some of the best ways to do that.
1. Address grieving at work directly
It can be difficult to manage grief in the workplace. You have to be sensitive without pushing people beyond what they are ready to discuss. And you have to be well equipped to help employees navigate something that impacts them on emotional, physical, financial, and social levels. But there’s no need for employers to tiptoe around the topics of grief, death, and loss; addressing grief and death openly can have major benefits for companies and their employees.
Of course, these subjects should be treated with respect and empathy, and being sensitive to employees’ losses should be a priority. But employees should also have the opportunity to talk transparently about their experiences and needs.
When returning to work, communicate to your employees that you understand that the journey through grief will be ongoing and long term for many people. To help facilitate these discussions, organize individual one-on-one chats, as well as group spaces to process grief. Further, put policies and benefits in place that your employees can refer to or ask questions about at any time.
As a leader, understand it can be very frustrating for your employees to grieve at work; team members might experience feelings of inadequacy when their output isn’t the same as it always has been. Help your employees do their best by taking feedback and requests regarding additional support that they might need.
2. Revisit your bereavement policy
No matter how resilient your employees might be, they still need time to heal, alongside grief support. This can come in the form of your formal policy guidelines and additional bereavement benefits or resources you might provide.
Find out who in your company is equipped to manage how you accommodate grief as an employer. They should have information about tools to equip managers, where your bereavement policy stands, and accommodations that may need to be made after a year or more of working through a pandemic.
Oceana Sawyer, an end-of-life doula and grief guide, says employers should provide grief support through benefits like grief counseling, grief-specific flexible time off during the first and second years after a loss, and allow designated breaks in the workday that allow employees to get away from their desks and engage in self-care. She also suggests bringing on a grief expert, as a tailored resource, who can work with leadership to create a strategic plan for helping employees deal with loss.
When examining how your company responds to loss, here are a few questions to consider:
- Does your policy clearly state what employees can take time for and when they can use that time?
- Could employees use bereavement leave for grief-related mental health days if they didn’t use it immediately before or after a loss?
- How does your policy support caregivers before and after a death?
- What mental health benefits do you cover? Does the provider have expertise in grief therapy? What benefits do you have for the logistics after a death (e.g., funeral planning, legal support, childcare)?
- What is your work-from-home policy, and how could it play a role in the lives of grieving employees?
- What training or trainings are available to managers or employees who don’t feel equipped to discuss grief or loss?
- Can employees “call in Black?” or take personal days for grief related to community losses?
3. Create inclusive, accessible practices
According to Megan Sheldon, cofounder and creative director of Be Ceremonial, companies should focus on creating conversations, spaces, and practices that support grieving employees. This could involve activities and opportunities that are open to the entire team, one-on-one exchanges between managers and direct reports, or practices employees can do on their own time. There are many ways we memorialize loss, so get creative and find ways that fit the needs of both your company and employees.
It’s important to consider that there might be cultural or religious practices people already use to grieve. Some also won’t participate, whether because it’s not culturally appropriate for them, they’re not interested, or because work doesn’t feel like a safe space. All of this is okay; what’s most important is that you have offerings available if and when employees need them.
Sheldon suggests a few other specific, concrete ways to create these inclusive spaces. She recommends hiring a grief professional or celebrant to help your team manage the changes that come with grief. Also consider hosting a onetime or recurring gathering where employees can share their experiences with loss and grief and holding a vigil to honor the loss of any employees or colleagues during the pandemic. Finally, she notes the value of encouraging employees to take solo time for journaling and reflection after a loss.
It’s crucial to ensure all activities, spaces, and practices are secular and neutral to avoid making grieving exclusive in any way. Extend the options of digital and in-person resources, as well, as part of your effort to ensure inclusivity in grief support. Most important, recognize that everyone’s grief and their grieving processes are different. Don’t use blanket statements like, “We know everyone has been struggling with . . .” or “I know we’re all exhausted and sad and stressed.” Even if they’re used as an attempt to unify, these broad characterizations of grief can minimize individual experiences with loss and hurt your efforts to make everyone’s grief welcome.
Supporting grieving employees long term
As helpful and meaningful as it is to offer grief support as employees return to the office, it’s vital that you continue that momentum in the months and years to come. No matter how resilient your employees might be, everyone needs grace and empathy in times of loss. Supporting grieving employees can be a challenge, but creating—and living out—a culture of care will ultimately help everyone heal and move forward together with more resilience than before.
Liz Eddy is the cofounder and CEO of Lantern, a public benefit corporation on a mission to change the way we discuss and manage end of life and death.
Alica Forneret is a consultant, educator, and author dedicated to creating new spaces for people to explore grief and grieving.