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Helping Grievers Return to Work

Grieving can be a difficult process, and returning to work after bereavement can seem daunting. Understandably, a grieving employee might feel anxious or overwhelmed when trying to navigate this new way of being and as leaders, we can help ensure that we are aware of this struggle. With compassionate understanding and awareness of the situation, leaders can create meaningful workplace practices that support their employee's emotional wellness while they transition back into the workplace. Today, we will explore how managers can help grievers return to work in an empowering way.

Understanding Grief

No one returns to work because they are healed. Employees return to work because they have to. So, as they navigate the process of returning to work after experiencing loss, leaders need to acknowledge and understand the tumultuous relationship grievers have with their emotions. There are no straight lines, no stages. It is one big pot of emotions.

Sometimes, it's easy to suppress these emotions or pretend that everything is fine, but it can lead to burnout, resentment, and further emotional turmoil. And sometimes, going right back to work is often one of the ways that we can process our emotions.

But that swirl is impossible to plan around! So, my suggestion is to stay curious and aware of some of the telltale signs of emotionally burdened colleagues:

  • Brainfog - making mistakes they never make

  • When tardiness is suddenly a problem

  • Fatigue and insomnia

  • When anger or frustration surfaces with teammates.

Setting Expectations

As we prepare to return to work, it is important to set expectations with the griever and their colleagues. It can be nerve-racking to imagine jumping back into the routine, especially after a prolonged absence. So preparing for their return not only sets them at ease but also sets the expectation for your team.

Having open and honest conversations about what the griever needs and what you can offer will help you build a foundation of partnership for their healthy return. It will give them, then to be honest with you and it will help you navigate any work or projects should they need more time.

While it may not be seamless, communication is the cornerstone of what you may have to navigate. Focus on flexibility, encourage workable options and communicate plans across your team. By doing so, you’ll be able to create a supportive and nurturing work environment that allows your team to thrive both professionally and personally.

Extending Leave Options

Taking time off to process grief healthily can be a difficult decision to make, but it's an important one. The grieving process can be intense and then background noise. It can keep us held up in bed for days and also fuels the delivery of a project. Each one of us processes it differently. What is important, however, is that when it does take over, your grieving employee can take the time they need.

A recent client of ours lost their daughter and returned to work within a few short weeks. Some voiced their concern about it being too early and others commended them on their strength (lots of judgment happening here). However, when it all came crashing in on their daughter's birthday 3 months later - there was this sense of "failure" that joined the pile-on of emotions. The employee was able to take some leave and was offered accommodation thereafter.

Expecting an ebb and flow is important. It shouldn't keep you on your toes as a leader but it should certainly consider offering time off long after the loss experience.

Building a Sense of Belonging

When it comes to grief, being fully attentive and taking thorough notes during meetings can be difficult. That's why recording meetings can be a game-changer for those who need to stay on top of their tasks while mourning the loss of a loved one. By having a recording of the meeting, you can go back and listen to any information you may have missed or didn't fully understand. Plus, it can be empowering to know that you have all the information you need at your fingertips whenever you need it.

I especially love this when the bereaved is on leave. Sending them these recordings gives them a chance to break from the emotional weight, it helps them stay connected and makes the return to work that much easier. If you do take this idea on for your teammate - mention them in the meeting. Voicing encouragement, or an "if you are watching this...we would love your quick feedback."

Setting realistic goals and planning for when it all becomes too much is the foundation of empowering a healthy return to work. And frankly, communication has to be at the core of this.

To further dive into how companies can create more inclusive policies towards grieving employees, be sure to check out our free resources including the 2023 HR Transformation Report. We walk you through how Grief Inclusivity helps HR Leaders hit their top priorities for

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