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Addressing Grief Inclusively in the Workplace

Apr 17, 2020
7 min read

This article is a part of Collective’s Pandemic-Proof Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Toolkit. Click here to access the toolkit for free.

COVID-19 is leaving us with an unprecedented amount of loss. As of mid-April, New York alone has lost over 12,000 people. As science reporter Donald G. MicNeil Jr. said on the podcast The Daily, “Everyone will know somebody who died in this pandemic.”

As a diversity, equity & inclusion consultancy, our work at Collective largely involves helping companies make sure employees feel seen, understood, and valued, and have what they need to do their jobs well and thrive as human beings.

As this pandemic is disproportionately impacting communities of color, folks with underlying health issues, people in urban areas, people who still have to show up for work, etc.; a part of supporting diverse teams during this moment includes helping them deal with their grief.

And, like many soft skills that are being increasingly valued in millennial-driven workplace cultures, grief is something we can all get better at.

So, we’ve teamed up with our partners at Lantern, an end-of-life and death planning resource for people and the companies they work for, to lay out a few helpful frameworks for moving through grief and bereavement in difficult times.

Whether you’re personally dealing with the loss of a loved one, supporting team members who have, or are looking for the most compassionate way to move your team through societal grief — the resources below are designed to help leaders take a proactive & compassionate approach to grief in the workplace during difficult times.

Get the free toolkit here.

7 Ways to Support Team Members Who are Grieving the Loss of a Loved One

  1. Check In. Sounds basic, but it’s so necessary. This can be done virtually or, if you’re not certain of what to say, write an email. Here are a few sample text messages designed to almost feel like a real hug.
  2. Mark it on the calendar. Save the death anniversary and person’s birth date in your calendar so that you can reach out on important milestone dates.
  3. Share benefits. Make sure they know what benefits are available to them through company policy (therapy, legal support, etc.).
  4. Be human. A natural response is to want to give something, like a card, flowers, or donation. If you do want to send something monetary, consider a restaurant gift card or a grocery delivery to allow for future use. (Flowers aren’t usually the best thing to send since they’ve likely received many already). Need more ideas? Consider gift platforms for difficult times like Supportal.
  5. Offer to help with needed tasks. If you or any team members have the capacity, offer to help with tasks like setting up a virtual memorial service, contacting extended family/friends, creating a memorial website, etc.
  6. Leverage these platforms to organize support. If it’s not being done already, consider helping organize help with meals, funding, etc. through grief support platforms such as Savo or GiveInKind.

While You’re At it… 4 Steps to Proactively Up-Level Your Bereavement Company Policy

One woman explains information to another woman in a workplace.
  1. Provide resources. Ensure your employees have tools for navigating pre-planning, loss, and grief. We’ve got a round-up here that includes many free and low-cost options.
  2. Secure benefits. Help employees prepare for and manage the loss of a loved one. Lantern provides step-by-step guidance on how to navigate your life before and after a death. Companies can supplement their benefits package by partnering with Lantern to offer employees the first all-in-one end of life digital solution. From will writing to funeral planning, Lantern covers the process from end-to-end.
  3. Clearly state your bereavement policy. If you haven’t done so already, develop a bereavement policy in your employee handbook. While creating the policy ask yourself: “If my spouse/child/parent passed away, what would I expect and hope for from my employer?” Already have one? Now is a good time to review it.
  4. Educate your employees. Most U.S. employees spend more awake time with co-workers than with family members at home. 62% of bereaved employees will turn to peers and supervisors on the job for support. Educate your employees on best practices for supporting their bereaved colleagues, and arm them with knowledge on available benefits including therapy and crisis support lines.

6 Ways to Build Grief Processing Into Your Workplace Culture

A group of people discuss topics together.

1. Normalize grief

By naming our emotions, we can recognize them when they show up, and take appropriate action rather than exacerbating hardship. It’s important to recognize that the emotions associated with grief are normal and we all innately have the ability to adapt to loss (and are all actively doing this right now in varying degrees). This process of adaptation looks different for everyone in terms of timeline and the types of emotions we might experience.

2. Understand what grief looks like

Not only are there many different emotions associated with grieving, but they can also happen at the same time. It is possible to feel grief right now without directly losing someone near you. Acknowledging the types of emotions associated with grief can help you identify when you might need to give yourself or a team member a little extra time, practice self-care, and/or reach out to a support system.

Some of the types of emotions associated with grief are:

  • Sorrow, emotional pain
  • Distracting thoughts of the person who’s died
  • Trouble focusing
  • Forgetfulness
  • Disbelief that the person has died
  • Disconnection from people, things you once loved, yourself
  • Anger

You might have heard of the “stages of grief,” which is a great framework, but one that organizations like Lantern no longer utilize. Instead, Lantern is a proponent of the dual-process model.

Here’s what it looks like:

3. Know that the intensity of grief will wax and wane

Do not enforce a timeline for “feeling better.” Grief is often an entirely new emotion that requires getting used to. How a team member feels day-to-day or even minute-to-minute may surprise them.

4. Manage work expectations through grief

It can be helpful to consider what employees may be thinking about in terms of their work right now. Below are a few tips Lantern gives to its users when they are considering going back to work. It’s important to keep these in mind since they may overlap with what your employees are thinking/feeling right now

  • Be honest. Don’t pretend you’re fine if you’re not. Ultimately, employers want to be understanding and resentment can occur if you’re not ready to go back.
  • Have a plan for the hard days. Find a safe person to talk to, build in a longer lunch break, find a safe place for a moment alone. You might not need it but knowing it’s there can help reduce the stress of returning to work.
  • Don’t expect the same level of productivity. You’ve been through a lot, and it may take time before you’re operating at the same level you once were. Be kind to yourself.

5. If you notice an employee struggling with grief at work, here’s how to respond conscientiously:

  • Ask yourself if you’re the right person to support them. You may notice they’re down, but is there someone else they’re closer to or more comfortable with?
  • If you do find yourself speaking with them, choose a private location away from other employees. Avoid approaching them at their desk or in common spaces. Choose a conference room that isn’t fully glass. Sometimes, taking a walk is best.
  • Reflect their language. Don’t assume their religious beliefs (i.e. they’re in a better place) or their relationship to the lost loved one. Oftentimes, the emotions associated with a loss aren’t clear cut. Even using the term “loved one” is making an assumption about the relationship.
  • Keep information private. It’s up to the griever if they want others to know their story. Assume any information shared is for you and you only.

6. Build Grief Processing Into Your Company Culture

See numbers 1–5 above? Consider sharing them in your own way during a team meeting. By proactively and transparently including grief processing in your company culture, you are showing your team that it is OK to think about, notice, and recognize grief when it’s coming up for you or others on your team.

Ideally, this can help everyone manage expectations and support one another through this difficult time while giving ourselves permission to feel, process, and move through the rocky road ahead while we get back to work.

While nothing about this time is easy, including grief processing in your company culture can help teams grow stronger, more resilient, and more connected to each other and their work than ever before.

Looking for more tips on how to move your team through COVID-19 with equity and inclusion in mind? Download our free Pandemic-Proof Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Toolkit by clicking here.

Eden Connelly TallaricoEden Connelly Tallarico

Head of Growth @ Collective | Equitable business strategist invested in health, justice, and the earth.