Grief in the Workplace: Helpful Tips to Support Colleagues

Grief in the Workplace: Helpful Tips to Support Colleagues

Katie Gesell, LMSW
Katie Zicarelli-Gesell, LMSW

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, we want to share on the topic of grief in the workplace. Check out this helpful blog from Katie Zicarelli Gesell, LMSW; Peckham Intake and Eligibility Specialist and grief expert on how we can better support our coworkers who may be experiencing grief and loss.

Grief is a universal experience, something that everyone will experience at some point. According to an article by The Recovery Village, around 2.5 million people die each year, leaving an average of five grieving people behind. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that three days bereavement is common for immediate family members and one day for other family members. However, grief lasts much longer than that, leaving an average of 7.5 million grieving people returning to work every year. That is a lot of people carrying grief through their workday.

Knowing how to support grieving colleagues is essential to a healthy work environment. Everyone experiences grief differently and has unique support needs; however, there are a few common things we can do, and avoid, to support a grieving colleague with compassion and care.

Offer acknowledgement that returning to work while grieving is hard, especially if you are a supervisor to someone who is grieving. Saying, “I know you are grieving and that might make work difficult,” can be validating and supportive to the griever.

Make comments such as “I don’t know how you do it,” “I can’t imagine experiencing that,” or “If I were you, I wouldn’t be able to be back at work already.” While many of these comments are well intended, they can leave the griever feeling shame and frustration. What you can’t imagine, they are living. For some, returning to work is necessary because they can’t afford any additional time off or because sometimes small acts of normalcy are helpful.

Offer specific examples of support. This is going to vary depending on your workplace and job, but could involve taking over projects, giving additional time to complete tasks, coworking (sitting together while working), or offering tasks that require less focus. Giving specific suggestions allows for the griever to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what they might find helpful, instead of having to come up with ideas on their own.

Say “Let me know if you need anything.” This is a common gesture, but it puts the burden on the grieving person to ask for help, which can be difficult. Often, people aren’t sure what they need, resulting in them not receiving any support while their colleagues mistakenly assume they have everything under control.

Acknowledge the person’s grief. Although ignoring it might seem safer, it can make them feel isolated and lonely. It is also important to follow their lead on whether they want to discuss their grief or not. Open the door and let them decide if they want to walk through it.

Express pity. Most people don’t react well to being treated as if they are a wounded baby deer. It’s helpful to feel empathy for your coworkers, but it’s important not to make them feel like they need to reassure you by saying “it’s okay.”

Other Considerations:

• Keep any conversations private and one on one, avoiding high traffic areas in the workplace.
• Work productivity might vary, grieving employees can benefit from flexibility in tasks and responsibilities.
• Grief has no end point, continue to offer support to grieving employees as long as they need.

If You Are Grieving:

Learning how to cope with a death is difficult. It is normal to need additional support, a change of responsibilities, and more time to complete tasks. While it is helpful for specific support to be offered to you, it is also okay to ask for help.

Be gentle with yourself and focus on tending to the basics: give yourself time to rest, ensure you are getting nutrition, drink water, and move your body as you are able. These can offer a sense of control and self-care.

Many people find it helpful to connect with others that are grieving. Support groups or speaking to a grief therapist are great ways to connect. Many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs, so be sure to check with your Human Resources team to see what may be available to you.