Leaders are uniquely positioned to give critical support to grieving coworkers. Not sure how? Read on.
While the pandemic has impacted our lives in countless ways, one unmistakable mark it has left on us is the stamp of grief. With COVID death tolls today in the hundreds of thousands worldwide, not many of us will survive unscathed by the loss of a loved one.
Grief is difficult to navigate in our personal lives, but the choices to show support are somewhat obvious. With close friends and family members, we can extend support through hugs, financial support, offering a shoulder to cry on, or by helping with familial responsibilities.
In the workplace, helping grievers is more complex. Often, condolences don’t seem like enough. But what else can we do?
How do we support our coworkers without being overly intrusive, or overstepping professional boundaries? Is it even okay for us to talk about a coworker’s grief, let alone mention it?
Over the last two years, I’ve been a bystander to grief as a people manager, a project leader, a direct report, and a coworker. I have also experienced grief personally myself. Each time has been jarring to my teams, the work that we do, and without a doubt, for the person who was grieving. Each time has required that we show care with utmost respect.
Through these experiences I’ve realized that I am in a special position to help grievers as a leader in the organization.
For those of you struggling to help someone on your team, I’d like to share a few actions that work. These are actions you can take to support your grieving coworker today.
Act #1: Give Permission to Take Time Off
A coworker who recently lost a parent confided in me that while she was grieving, she was also worried about her job security. She told me:
“On top of everything I was going through at home, I was worried I was going to lose my job.”
Because of her fears, she attempted to return to work before she was ready.
On the day she returned, her manager did something unexpected. He scheduled time to meet with her at the start of her day. When he saw my coworker was still emotionally shaken, here’s what he told her:
“He said it would be unproductive for me start working again if I was not ready. I was relieved that he gave me permission to take the time I needed.”
As a manager, you can help your direct report by communicating the importance of personal health and providing permission for her to take the time she needs before returning to work. You can also share your bereavement policy and provide resources she can use to understand options for extended leave.
Having your explicit permission can alleviate unnecessary stress when she is grieving.
But people managers are not the only ones whose gestures can provide significant support. As a project leader, you can help a coworker take time off by adjusting her responsibilities. You can swiftly shift the critical tasks owned by your grieving teammate to others. You can create peace of mind by letting her know those tasks are in good hands while she takes care of herself and her family.
Finally, as any leader in the organization, you can reinforce the message that time off is both allowed and expected. Words of support from company leadership can help the person who is grieving feel secure about her job so that she can focus on healing.
When my dad passed away, I was working on a critical project that was marching toward its launch. I dropped off the face of the earth for weeks, and no one batted an eye.
I received only support from my team with messages like “we miss you, but we’ve got it covered.” My manager encouraged me to not worry about work, to spend time with my family. The owner of the company also relayed a message to me to take as much time as I needed. Those are gestures I carry in my heart and appreciate to this day.
Act #2: Organize a gift from coworkers
When a coworker on one of my teams loses a loved one, I am flooded with messages of concern from team members. They all ask the same question: “What can we do to help?”
When grief touches one person on an integrated team, it is not only that one person that is impacted.
Others on her team may empathize and also feel a sense of loss. They may feel compelled to offer support. At the same time, those teammates are often unsure how to help, given the personal nature of grief.
As a leader, you can help this process by organizing the support of coworkers. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Identify a single person to communicate with your grieving team member. Choose one person on the team to be the conduit for ongoing communications. This will help reduce the amount of questions your grieving coworker has to field.
- Purchase a card to share words of support. A card is a timeless way for teams to show support. If your teams are colocated, you can purchase a card and pass it around for folks to sign. For remote teams, you can use a service like https://www.kudoboard.com/.
- Collect contributions to send a group gift. For those who want to share additional support, provide an option to participate in a group gift. With services like Venmo, Zelle, or PayPal, it’s easy for coworkers to send money to a single person to distribute.
- Propose thoughtful options for a gift. Your coworker will have a lot of decisions to make while she is grieving. Instead of leaning on her with yet another decision about what gift she wants you to send, do some research and propose one or two options to her. Does she have a family to care for? Perhaps you can send food delivery or housekeeping. Does her family abide by specific cultural or religious traditions? If so, learn about those to find something appropriate. Narrow the choices to send something thoughtful without adding a burden.
Helping to organize support is something that you are well-positioned to do as a leader. These actions will help both your team at large as well as your grieving coworker.
Act #3: Support the transition back to work
In the book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg describes the act of returning to work after losing her husband as helpful to her healing process. She said:
“Work gave me a place to feel more like myself, and the kindness of my colleagues showed me that not all aspects of my life were terrible.”
Returning to work after the death of a loved one is a big milestone. The timeline for readiness to return to work will differ for each person. Some will want to come back sooner for a distraction while others will have personal affairs that need tending.
However, at some point, every griever will be ready to work again as they adapt to their new normal.
Leaders can make the re-entry to work helpful to the healing process rather than hurtful by being supportive during the transition. Here are specific actions you can take:
- Acknowledge the grief. The best way to approach a grieving coworker is to offer support without pushing advice or asking prying questions. When you see your coworker, acknowledge her loss and share condolences. If you are a hugger, offer a hug. Offer to listen if she feels she needs to talk. In the workplace, these gestures may feel overly personal, but grief is personal. Gentle acknowledgment that you know she is experiencing grief will be appreciated.
- Consider personal commitments when scheduling work. As a manager or leader, be sensitive to the possibility that your grieving coworker may gain additional personal responsibilities in the aftermath of a family loss. If she is balancing new commitments alongside work, offer to help her plan her work-related commitments around personal ones.
- Prioritize critical tasks and provide options for offloading work. Help your grieving coworker understand where to focus her time. A griever returning to work may appear ready but she may also not be back to her full productivity. Make sure she is comfortable taking on critical tasks but also offer paths to offload work if needed. This will strike the right balance of support without coddling.
Act #4: Ask “How are you doing today?”
About three months after my father passed away, a manager asked me how I was doing during a one-on-one meeting. When I replied with candor that I was feeling “pretty bad,” he was surprised.
People often think of grief as a temporary state that you “get over” after an initial burst of emotions. In actuality, grief is a part of a new reality. Over time, the initial shock becomes less acute. Subsequent days may be better, but there will always be reminders that resurface feelings of sadness.
The underlying loss never truly goes away.
In an NPR interview between Emily Kwong and clinical psychologist Mary Frances O’Connor, O’Connor shares:
“Grief is that emotional state that just knocks you off your feet and comes over you like a wave. Grieving necessarily has a time component to it. Grieving is what happens as we adapt to the fact that our loved one is gone, that we’re carrying the absence of them with us. And the reason that this distinction makes sense is, grief is a natural response to loss — so we’ll feel grief forever. A woman who lost her mother as a young person is going to experience that grief on her wedding day because it’s a new moment where she’s having a response to loss.”
Because of the lasting effects of grief, it’s important to show empathy long after your grieving coworker returns to work. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant offer some keen advice on this topic in their book Option B.
Don’t ask “How are you doing?” Instead, use the phrase: “How are you doing today?”
I recommend that managers and leaders alike spend time one-on-one connecting with individual team members. Because they are private conversations, one-on-ones give individuals the ability to discuss work challenges more freely. These meetings are also the perfect time to check in on emotional health.
One-on-one conversations give you an opportunity to ask your grieving coworker “How are you doing today?” By doing so, you acknowledge that she is still on a journey. You show empathy and provide support without being overly intrusive. You open the door in private for her to confide in you or ask for additional help if she needs it.
While you cannot speed up the healing process for a grieving coworker, you can help by being respectful, showing empathy and offering support.
Leaders and managers are in a special position to offer meaningful support because of their authority to provide direction to a griever, their ability to coordinate support across the organization, and their influence over the workload a griever carries.
Leaders ultimately represent the company. As such, the empathetic actions any workplace leader takes to help grievers can have a meaningful impact.
If you are a leader or a manager with a grieving coworker, show your support by:
- Giving permission to take time off
- Organizing a gift from coworkers
- Supporting the transition back to work
- Asking “How are you doing today?” during one-on-ones
These actions will give your grieving coworker the support she needs while she takes time to heal.
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Emerge from the cocoon
One of my favorite quotes about the journey of grief comes from Glennon Doyle’s memoir Untamed. She wrote:
Grief is a cocoon from which we emerge new.
It’s been just over two years since my dad passed away. And while I would not have chosen this path, my experience with grief has definitely transformed me.
I will always be grateful for the empathy, respect, and kindness I received from leaders at work during my time of need. They gave me permission to grieve and the support I needed to emerge a stronger individual.
Since my father’s passing, I have found greater purpose through my writing. I now have more empathy for those who are grieving. I even have renewed commitment, motivation, and energy to pour into my work.
Over time, your coworker will also learn to live with her grief. If given the chance, she can emerge a stronger individual and teammate than she was before. Your support as a leader will provide immeasurable help during her journey.
Have you found additional ways to help grieving coworkers? Please share your experiences with me!
Want more insights about leading cohesive teams? Pre-order my book GLUE on Amazon.com today.