Managers Guide: How to Help a Grieving Employee

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

One of the greatest challenges you’ll face as a manager is how to help a grieving employee. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only added several more wrinkles to this already difficult situation. Individuals who lost family members due to the coronavirus may not have been by their relative’s side as they passed away. Funerals and family events meant to provide closure have often been delayed. Typical activities and ways to cope with loss, such as surrounding oneself with friends and getting out, are discouraged in the current health crisis.


All of this has contributed to a climate of prolonged sadness for those experiencing a loss during this time. As a manger, you can’t lessen the grief your employees feel, but you can take some important steps that will help them during their recovery from traumatic events in their personal lives.


Acknowledge Your Employee’s Loss

The Harvard Business Review notes that the best you can do as the manager of a grieving employee is to acknowledge the loss without making any demands. When you get a chance, privately offer your sincere condolences. It may be difficult and feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to show grieving employees that you recognize their loss and they’re not navigating these difficult times alone. Failing to reach out opens the door to an already distraught employee to form some negative assumptions: you don’t care; you won’t be making accommodations; you expect the same productivity; etc.


Strong communication is always important in the workplace, but it’s particularly vital during a difficult period. This private conversation will give you an opportunity to discuss any questions your employee may have. Common questions include the time-off policy, bereavement leave, schedule flexibility, and more. Most of all, an open, heart-to-heart talk with a grieving employee will give you a chance to set expectations at work and help put them at ease during this difficult time. Although it will be hard for you both, a supportive, open conversation at this time can set the tone for your relationship going forward. When done right, your employee’s commitment and loyalty to the company will be strengthened.


Manager helping a grieving employee by sitting with him outside and talking.

Have the Compassion to Allow Grief in the Workplace

Grief in the workplace is a challenge for everyone. Employees enduring loss will likely be experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions that may include bouts of profound sadness, shock, irritability, and more. All of these emotional reactions may create difficulty for you and other colleagues, which could impact the morale in the office.


No matter how disrupting you may find the emotional ups and downs at this time, it’s important you accept them and allow your team members to embrace their feelings. Encouraging grieving employees to speed up the process or try to mask their pain will only force the grief deeper, delaying or stopping their healing altogether. Instead, accept the emotional difficulties as part of the natural grieving process and create a supportive office culture. Make reasonable accommodations, such as allowing them to leave early or take some time alone in the middle of the workday, and let employees know that they will not be penalized for showing that they’re human.


Offer Paid Time Off

After the death of an immediate family member, your employee will likely have a host of responsibilities that they need to complete:

  • Notifying relatives
  • Making funeral arrangements
  • Handling financial and legal affairs
  • Requesting a death certificate

With the pandemic, those steps have only become more difficult. Physical offices have been closed and paperwork has been stacking up for many services, delaying many of the steps. All of this takes time and distracts individuals from one of the most pressing needs at hand: emotionally grieving the loss.


Unfortunately for most U.S. employees, bereavement leave is woefully insufficient. SHRM points out that most companies only offer between two and four days of paid bereavement leave. For part-time employees, contract workers, and “gig” employees, it’s even worse.


Employees experiencing a loss may require a handful of days just to recover from the shock of loss, not to mention the mounds of paperwork waiting for them. Instead of a set number of days following a loss, experts recommend allowing employees more flexibility with their time off. Some employees may welcome the distraction of work after a personal tragedy, so extending their bereavement time to be used up to a year after the death of a relative may be a better policy for companies.


Accept That Work Performance May Suffer

No matter how much time off and support you provide, it’s not fair to expect your grieving employees to perform at the same level as they did before the devastating event. Losing an immediate relative, or even a close friend, produces an unimaginable life interruption. Employees may appear stunned, confused, and distracted as they come to terms with their new normal, significantly impacting their work performance. Immediately after a personal tragedy, a recent Forbes article notes that just showing up to work may be the best you can hope for from some individuals.


When managing grieving employees, just remember that their performance will return. As the weeks and months accumulate after a tragedy, workplace output, efficiency, and quality should improve. Although it may be difficult, it’s important to resist the urge to become critical or push these individuals. Everyone processes loss differently, and you should not form expectations of how long an employee needs to return to their peak performance.


Provide Professional Resources to Assist Employees

  • Do you work for a large company that offers an employee assistance program (EAP)?
  • Does your HR policy include financial benefits or support for things like paying the cost of the funeral?
  • Do you have any details on available grief counselors or other related services?

If the answer to any of these is “yes,” share those resources with your employees. During their time of grief, they may not know where to turn. Completing a bit of the legwork on their behalf can be a tremendous relief when they may have so many other legal and financial obligations they’re working through.


Don’t work for a company that offers any of the resources above? You may consider organizing a fundraiser on behalf of the employee. In addition to offsetting some of the unexpected expenses, your employee will feel supported by the entire office.


Female employee grieving at work and looking up resources available at the office to support her.

Prepare for Employee Loss Today

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented loss of human life and grief in the workplace, and there’s evidence that this may continue even after our nation has gotten a handle on it. During this public health threat, many individuals have put off routine screenings and medical treatments, which may produce an unintentional wave of unrelated health issues throughout the nation. With this looming threat, there has never been a more important time to prepare for workplace health challenges.


While you may never be able to significantly decrease an employee’s sense of loss and grief during a family tragedy, you can support their recovery by preparing now. Having a strategy in place and knowing your company’s policies will enable you to offer clear direction to team members and avoid ambiguity that can worsen an already difficult time. If you’re in a leadership position, you owe it to your team to acquaint yourself with the important steps that can make such a big difference in times of grief.