Returning to work after a loss

workplace grief

Getting back to a normal routine after the loss of a loved one can be challenging. This article provides guidance for employers and their employees on how to best manage the transition back to work.

Key Points for supporting your grieving employee

  • Talk to the grieving employee about how you can best support them.
  • Make adjustments to meet their needs.
  • Encourage your staff to express condolence, exercise patience and be flexible.
  • Be prepared for emotional ups and downs as a normal part of grief.
  • Keep an eye out for signs that your employee is not coping, especially if their loss was unexpected or traumatic.
  • Provide professional Employee Assistance counselling or on-site mental health support to employees who need it.

 

What to expect from an employee who is grieving

While grief is something everyone experiences at some point, no one responds to it in exactly the same way. There are a range of emotions that are “normal” when someone is grieving, including depressed mood, anger, or avoidance (1). Many people go through a phase of feeling disconnected and distracted during the grieving process. Anticipate that your grieving employee may at different times appear overwhelmed, exhausted, irritable, or unable to concentrate. At other times they may appear emotionally resilient and keen to throw themselves into their normal work routines.

More info about the stages and types of grief, loss and bereavement.

 

Find out what your employee needs to feel supported

Have a conversation with the returning employee about how they would like to approach their return to work. Find out to what extent they want their colleagues to be informed. Once you have their permission, explain the situation to your team and ask them to be patient and supportive as their colleague settles back into work. Having these conversations can help to break the taboos around grief in the workplace and create an environment that’s more open and supportive for everyone.

 

Make adjustments

As an employer, one of the best ways you can support your employee is to make appropriate adjustments until they have regained full working capacity. Proactively consider what adjustments or extra support is required. Check in with your employee regularly in the first few weeks and allow them to take it easy if that’s what they need. It can also be a good idea to suggest they return to work on a part-time basis. Prep your team to share the workload to keep things running smoothly and avoid added stress to your grieving employee.
Offer support or some kind words to a grieving colleague

Keep in mind is that it’s better to say something than nothing. After losing a loved one, life changes in a profound way and the pain and grief can be all-consuming. If this isn’t acknowledged by the people around you, it can be very isolating. Even a simple email saying, “I’m really sorry and if there’s anything you need, please ask” goes a long way. If the colleague is someone you work with closely, you could offer to help ease their workload, or to join them for a coffee when they need a breather. Accept that their emotions might swing from numbness, to grief, to anger and disbelief; listening without offering advice is the best thing you can do.

 

What are the signs that someone is not coping?

As time goes on, most people adjust well to life after a loss and will return to normal day-to-day functioning. However, in some cases the grief may become more complicated, developing into prolonged grief, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (2). If your employee is showing consistent signs of distress and disruption to their life more than six months after a loss, this is a sign they may require professional support from a counsellor or psychologist.

 

What to do if a death is sudden or traumatic

When someone loses a loved one in an unexpected way, such as suicide, an accident, or losing a child to illness, the entire workplace can be affected. Depending on the nature of the loss some team members may also need support on how to manage their relationship with their colleague, as well as managing their own reactions to the event. Remember, everyone deals with death differently so ensure support is available to those who need it through an Employee Assistance Program. If necessary you can also organise a professional workplace suicide support service, in which a trained counsellor comes to your workplace and talks to your staff about what emotions they might experience and when to seek further help.

In instances when a number of staff members are directly impacted by the death, or a traumatic event takes place on site, your organisation may benefit from having a professional come onsite for a workplace incident debriefing. This normally starts with a short group information briefing and support session as well as private sessions for individual who are feeling affected.

If any of these circumstances apply to your workplace, please give us a call to discuss the best support service for your organisation.

1. Howarth, R. (2011). Concepts and controversies in grief and loss. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 33(1), 4-10. https://meridian.allenpress.com/jmhc/article-abstract/33/1/4/83390/Concepts-and-Controversies-in-Grief-and-Loss?redirectedFrom=PDF

2. Jordan, A. H., & Litz, B. T. (2014). Prolonged grief disorder: Diagnostic, assessment, and treatment considerations. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(3), 180. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-24102-004

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