Mar 15, 2022

How to Support Employees Through Grief and Loss – a Guidebook for Employers

Grief looks different for everyone. No one goes through the same situation or healing process as anyone else. However, employers often fail to acknowledge or provide accommodations to help employees grieve and heal after life-changing events. While most employers offer two to four bereavement days, very little consideration is given if the loss is a spouse or a child. Then, there is grief as a result of COVID. Unfortunately, few Americans have been untouched from grief, as more than 900,000 Americans have died of COVID. It is estimated that at any given time, one in four employees experiences grief.

Employers and managers need to know how to support employees through grief and loss. Managers need to know what grief and loss look like and how it manifests in each person to understand how to best support employees through the process. Grief is an emotional process that happens before, during, and after an event or change that sets off a series of feelings and behavioral changes. 

While death is considered the most common cause of grief, many workplace policies see it as the only kind of grief worth offering bereavement leave to employees who can prove a loss. However, that is not always the case. Psychology Today defines grief as “Grief is the acute pain that accompanies loss. Because it is a reflection of what we love, it can feel all-encompassing. Grief is not limited to the loss of people, but when it follows the loss of a loved one, it may be compounded by feelings of guilt and confusion, especially if the relationship was a difficult one.”  As a result, workplace grief is sometimes referred to as the most ignored workplace emotion.

Types of Grieving Events

Below are a few examples of grieving events employers should be aware of:

  • Death
  • Divorce, Loss of a Relationship
  • Traumatic Events
  • Changes in Health
  • Job Loss
  • Financial Loss
  • Change in Living Conditions
  • Holidays

2019 WebMD study on the cause and effects of grief found that the death of a friend or family member accounted for 37% of grief among respondents, while 29% grieved the loss of a relationship, 11% over job loss, and 4% because of divorce.  

The Five Stages of Grief

Many people have heard about the “stages of grief”.  Though most do not know that the framework has been misused and applied too broadly over the years.  The “Five Stages” were developed to help people as they dealt with a terminal illness, not for grief in general.  However, over time, the five stages have been used as guideposts through the journey of grief. While grief is a highly individualized emotion and unique to every person, oftentimes people go through the same steps. These steps are not taken in sequential order and one can cycle in and out of any given stage. These are often referred to as the five stages of grief.

  1. Denial 

Denial is a defense mechanism that people often develop to help numb intense feelings of the situation. Emotions at this stage are high, and many people will try to deny reality to avoid the situation. 

  • Anger 

Often referred to as a mask, anger is a continued defense mechanism used to decrease the intense feelings of sadness by turning to negativity directed to people involved in the situation and even themselves. Anger can blur rationality and cause people to act out of the ordinary. 

  • Bargaining

At this stage, most people have accepted the situation and begin asking themselves “what if” or “if only” questions to try to gain control of the situation. It is another line of defense used to postpone emotions of sadness, confusion or hurt. 

  • Depression

Known as the “quiet” stage of the grieving process, depression describes a prolonged period of sadness. However, it is not to be confused for major depressive disorder, which is a medically diagnosed condition. This stage can be the longest and most challenging stage to get through. If a person cannot move past this stage, seeking mental health treatment with a therapist or peer coach is recommended. 

  • Acceptance

The grieving process’s final and ongoing stage is acceptance when they have come to terms with the situation, and all appears to be well. However, that is far from the truth. It does not mean that your sadness and depression are gone. Grief has long-term effects that will continue to influence a person, instead of acceptance means that a person understands the situation and its impact on their life. 

The stages above are only examples of the emotions and processes that someone will go through during the grieving process. The number one trait employers must have when dealing with a grieving employee is empathy. Understanding how to support employees through grief and loss can be challenging but knowing the available resources can help ease the challenge.  

How to Support Employees Through Grief and Loss – What to Know

The trend in recent years towards diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace has highlighted the need to foster a healthy workplace culture. When creating a benefits plan, factor in and search for other items designed to help employees find success in the workplace by improving productivity and motivation. Employers tend to focus on more common issues like medical insurance, dental and vision coverage, wellness benefits such as gym memberships, weight loss programs, and smoking cessation. Historically, employers often excluded employee mental health programs from their wellness benefits. However, the good news, according to Forbes, is nearly 40% of employers expanded employee mental health benefits during the pandemic.

Offering employee mental health benefits is critical, especially since many employers fail to acknowledge that the cause of grief is due to something other than a family member’s death, such as a partner’s job loss, a coworker’s loss, or coworker death. In addition, people become accustomed to a particular environment in the workplace, and a change in personnel can cause other employees to bereave the loss, even if it was a change to a new location or company-wide layoffs. 

Four Questions Employers Need to Ask Employees After a Loss

When a grieving employee comes into the workplace, it is essential for managers and colleagues to know how to handle the situation. Again, grief is a highly individual experience and people have different processes which means every employee’s workplace needs will vary as well. While some employees may want to be left alone and resort to diving into their work, others will need to express their emotions through talking and sharing with others—the best thing for a supervisor is to ask their grieving employee a simple set of questions.

  1. What do you need from me? Time off, privacy?
  2. What do you want me to know?
  3. What do you want others to know?
  4. How can we make this process comfortable for you in the workplace?

Companies can implement bereavement training for all employees on how to take care of the workplace before an event occurs. If an employee feels ignored, they may feel their company doesn’t care about them. Conversely, if the company overdoes their concerns, the employee may feel embarrassed or ashamed by the extra attention they receive. The training for supervisors and coworkers teaches others how to support employees through grief and loss creates a nurturing workplace.

Employers should also be aware of missed workdays’ challenges and implications on other employees. For example, some will have to pick up extra work to keep operations running smoothly or rearrange their schedules to accommodate additional projects and meetings while their coworker is on bereavement leave. 

Misconceptions Employers Have About Workplace Grief

  1. Grieving follows a timeline

Grief does not follow a linear timeline. 

  • Bereavement is only about death

Grief can come with any loss, and loss doesn’t only apply to death. 

  • Grief isn’t as intense for nonfamily members

Again, grief is highly individualized. 

  • Crying will make it worse

When people cry, they allow their bodies to relieve emotional distress while also releasing endorphins and oxytocin. 

  • You shouldn’t grieve at work

People can’t turn on and turn off emotions. Grief can be very complicated. 

  • It’s been a year; you should be done with grieving. 

Grief is highly individualized and very unpredictable. There is no timeline. 

  • Grief is a sign of weakness

Grief is a normal response to loss.

The Financial Cost of Workplace Grief

Employers need to understand that it is not business as usual when an employee is experiencing grief. Employers will be impacted.

In September of 2020, Fortune published, The Biggest Risk In Business Right Now Is Grief. In this article, Fortune reported that grief was estimated to cost employers up to $75 billion dollars a year in lost productivity.

GrieveWell reports that “An estimated 30 workdays lost each year by each employee experiencing grief with no support from coworkers or managers; 20% of employees will continue losing workdays for more than a year”

How to Support Employees Through Grief and Loss – What to Do

The last important thing to know about grief in the workplace is the long-term effects it has on mental health. Like the five stages of grief outline, depression can be one of the most prolonged and potentially harmful processes to go through, and some people take a long time to get past the stage. If a person struggles to get out of this stage, they may turn to substances and other tactics to cope with the pain, devastating the established workplace culture and productivity. Speaking with a peer coach or mental health professional before the depression stage goes on too long is recommended. However, help should be available at any stage in the process. 

Grief is a universal human experience; helping and supporting employees through grief and loss should start long before an event occurs, and an HR policy should be created outlining new plans and policies. The first step is to look at the company’s current policy and have resources ready to use.

Fast Company outlines the top questions to ask when going over the current bereavement policy. 

  1. Is your company policy clear on the amount of time and support offered?
  2. Can an employee use paid mental health days or bereavement support not taken during the initial loss before or after a loss?
  3. Does your policy support caregivers?
  4. What are your mental health benefits? Do your benefits include grief support, and is it available to the employee’s family?
  5. Do you have an alternative work arrangement/flex time for grieving employees?
  6. Is there training available to employees and managers on talking about grief in a supportive and uplifting manner?
  7. What kind of grief and loss is covered and supported by your company? 

An essential part of any bereavement policy is resources that are accessible for employees to help them along the process with private and confidential programs. These programs should be available to all employees and their immediate family members. 

Grief can occur at any time; many people begin to grieve before a loss has even happened, whether a loved one is in the hospital or they know a relationship is about to end. Therefore, it is essential to be flexible and understanding when employees request to take time off and offer on-demand programs and resources that support employees through grief and loss.

How to Support Employees Through Grief and Loss – Resources

One of the most valuable tools employers can provide employees is a support system. Whether with internal office relationships or through employee benefit programs that offer care, the ability to find help with the assistance of an employer is an excellent mental health benefit and retention tool for the workplace. 

Heritage CARES offers comprehensive support for grieving employees and more. In addition to grief support, Heritage CARES provides resources to help individuals struggling with stress, mental health, substance misuse and suicidal ideation. The virtual support program offers on-demand access to the youturn video platform, care management platform and Assertive Community Engagement (ACE) peer coaches who take on the responsibility of helping each person on the path to recovery. 

Everyone experiences grief at some point, and some people’s careers put them into situations of others’ suffering. For example, first responders come face to face with life-or-death scenarios daily and often take on residual aspects of the grief, with studies finding they have little to no time to heal due to compounding grief. Veterans are in another line of work that places them in the frontline of war and death, leading to high cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidal ideation. That is why it is essential for all employers, even those beyond the traditional walls of an office, to provide resources that can create a customized approach to the situation. 

Heritage CARES understands that grief goes beyond a traditional workplace setting and that comprehensive support is vital to healing. If you are interested in learning more about the virtual program, visit Heritage CARES. To discover how Heritage CARES supports employees struggling with grief, mental health, substance misuse and suicidal ideation, visit www.heritagehealthsolutions.com/employers.

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