Grief is Inevitable

People die.

People mourn.

Life moves on.

Grief is inevitable.

Grief challenges all of us; shoot, it cripples many. Thankfully, most of us have gone our entire careers without seeing how grief affects the workplace.

But now? Nearly 700,000 Americans have died directly or indirectly from COVID19, and thousands more are expected to leave us before the year draws to a close.

Millions are mourning. If it is not already, grief may soon be front and center in the workplace. Sadly, many of us are ill equipped to manage it.

As leaders, we need to prepare ourselves for when it hits our teams because if it hasn’t already, it will. As morbid as this seems, it is the right thing to do. The following are some worthy considerations.

Designated Work Liaison 

Ask employees to designate one or two people who are their “go to” people at work. This isn’t their emergency contact people – it’s their “go to” people who can be called upon if the employee is suffering, needs some help, needs someone to talk to. It’s an odd request, for sure, but it will help. It’s overwhelming for a grieving employee to have too many people asking questions, checking in, offering assistance, etc., and these things often result in creating yet another emotional burden for the grieving employee. These “go to” people will be the liaisons between the employee and the rest of the workforce. They’ll be charged with checking in, empowered to be sounding boards, responsible for coordinating various tasks and resources, etc. Trust me, designating one or two people is better than having “anyone and everyone” checking in and offering help.

Support Network

Along the lines of a designated work liaison is the employee’s support network. Do they have one? Are they a member of a church or some other group like bowling, gardening, church, Elk’s Club, etc.? If so, can the work liaison engage with members from that group on the employee’s behalf? While this may seem like work is “crossing” a boundary, know this…a grieving person is overwhelmed with receiving and returning phone calls, texts, etc.  If someone from work can relieve some of this burden and maintain the interaction/engagement with others, so be it.

Paid Time Off

Are you offering bereavement leave or any other type of paid administrative leave that can be utilized for the death of a family member or loved one? Is it sufficient? Does your company allow for donated leave? Are employees able to use these types of benefits regardless of their tenure? (If you do have these benefits, please take a moment to remind your employees of them.) 

Current Work Status

Are there protocols in place to record / monitor work status? With so many employees working remotely, it’s possible that you’re using project/task management technology. If that’s the case, you’ll just want to make sure access is secured in the event an employee has to abruptly quit working. If you’re not using technology and are relying upon personal updates, may I suggest you implement a regular schedule for these status updates now? Doing so now will benefit everyone as you’ll create great interactive and accountability habits during times of normalcy. You don’t want to find yourself behind the ball during times of crisis and/or make the grieving employee worry about work when their life has been incredibly disrupted.

Meals, Errands and Drivers  

Does the affected employee need some help with meals, running errands, or driving family members around? Often, these types of things are overwhelming but they serve as the perfect task for those who want to help. Many coworkers want to help but but don’t feel they know the person “personally” enough to do the more “intimate” activities that need to be done during times of grief. Buying a pizza, making some meals, picking up a relative at the airport, driving kids to their tutor, etc. is a great solution.

Professional Help

Does the grieving employee have access to mental health benefits?  Do they understand how their benefits work? Are there other types of benefits and services available to them, perhaps those offered through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? Do your employees need to be reminded about their EAP and how to access those services?

Moreover, what if it’s the employee who has died and the workforce is grieving? Perhaps the organization would benefit from having someone come in and facilitate group sessions? Do you have those resources available to you today so you’re not fumbling around tomorrow?

Phone Numbers/Websites

Do you have a list of local phone numbers that would naturally be called upon in these types of instances: funeral homes, hospice, florists, newspaper, churches, clinicians, state sponsored/subsidized programs, etc. (I know what you’re thinking…this isn’t your job. But trust me on this one, this simple resource guide will be valuable to an employee who needs it.)

Caring Packet

Can you create a “packet” for someone the moment you learn they have lost a loved one? Pamphlets, books, phone numbers, websites, and other resources could be in this packet. Names and numbers of employees who have offered to help could be included. Gift cards for local restaurants, dry cleaners/alterations, florists, etc. could be included. (You’re only limited by your imagination and compassion in creating such packets; there is no right or wrong way to do it if you let compassion, helpfulness and reasonableness be your guides.)

Learning About Grief

No one goes through grief in the same ways. While some throw themselves into work as it proves to be a decent distraction, others are unable to do so. While some are able to openly discuss their emotions and challenges, some can’t emotionally recover once they’ve allowed themselves to speak about it. Whether it’s formal training or other resources, the workforce would benefit from learning about grief, the stages of grief, demonstrating empathy, compassionate listening, etc.

Check Points

Unlike work status check-ins, these are regular and continued check-ins with the employee from his/her supervisor, owner of the business, etc. The purpose is simple…to alert the employee that they are being thought of and to ask them if they need anything. These check-ins shouldn’t be missed! Additionally, the employer could identify dates that are likely meaningful to the employee such as birthdays, anniversary, Mother’s or Father’s Day, Memorial Day, etc. If and when a death occurs, ensuring someone checks in when those holidays grow near is likely to be positively meaningful to the employee.

Many of us have managed to elude grief in the workplace for our entire careers, and we’ve been fortunate that mourning hasn’t invaded our work. I fear we have reached the end of such fortune – death and grief are inevitable. That being said, perhaps we should take some time today to plan for what will likely appear tomorrow.

  • About the Author

    Heather Kinzie serves as the Chief Operating Officer for The STRIVE Group. With more than 20 years of organizational and workforce performance experience, Kinzie offers consultation; facilitation and mediation; content development and training; and coaching to clients around the country. She oversees a team of experts who utilize a broad, systematic and collaborative approach to analysis, problem solving and consultation.

    Recognizing the critical importance of leadership, communication and effective engagement among teams, Kinzie has spent years learning, applying, evaluating and refining her theories on group dynamics, relationships, problem solving and motivation. Kinzie's clients appreciate her authenticity and creative, pragmatic insights and ideas to improve their leadership abilities, their teams and ultimately their organizations.

    Kinzie is a sought-after national keynote speaker, noted for bringing humor, genuineness and practical perspectives to her presentations. Her relevant and inspiring content resonates with audiences, engaging participants to step into new spaces.

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The STRIVE Group

The STRIVE Group