Grief in the Workplace: When It’s Not Business as Usual

Charles Read used to think that employees should leave their personal problems at home. For years, the president and CEO of a payroll company with 17 employees—offered employees three days of paid bereavement leave and believed that gave them enough time to regroup and return ready to work.

But when Read’s 29-year-old daughter, Shelley, died from ovarian cancer, his perspective changed. Days turned to weeks and then months, and all Read could do was putter around the office for a few hours before giving up and going home. It took at least six months before he could focus again.

Two years ago, Read also lost his wife and business partner, and again he struggled to concentrate. “I understand now that this type of grief is not something that you get over in a day or week, or just ignore or keep at home,” he says.

Now, when an employee’s family member is sick or dies, Read encourages the worker to take as much time as he or she needs. “We don’t charge it against their time off,” he says. “If they run out of annual leave or bereavement leave, we just pay them anyway. I’m not going to add to their stress. I’m not going to penalise them for things they can’t control.”

Neither is Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who also experienced the devastating impact of personal loss. In 2015, her husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly while on a family vacation in Mexico. Sandberg recently wrote about her journey with grief—and how it informed her thinking about dealing with loss in the workplace—in Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (Knopf, 2017), which she co-wrote with Wharton professor Adam Grant.

“Grief is a demanding companion,” Sandberg writes. “In those early days and weeks and months, it was always there, not just below the surface but on the surface.”

Yet the vast majority of employers provide only three to five days of bereavement leave, depending on whether the deceased is a child, spouse, parent or extended family member.

What can you do to make the grieving process easier for your employees?

  1. Give Time

​After the death of a loved one, employees typically get a few days off from work and when they return to work, grief can interfere with their job performance. The economic stress that follows bereavement is like a one-two punch, for both the employee and their organisation.

Paradoxically, offering employees more time to deal with their grief—through longer bereavement leave, reduced hours and flexible schedules—could wind up costing organisations less.  By addressing the issue directly, organisational leaders can build in mechanisms for ensuring that the work gets done while also providing employees with the time and compassion they need to heal. And that brings with it long-term benefits in the form of greater employee loyalty.

Many times, the employer thinks about rewarding employees for an anniversary or acknowledging their birthday, says David Kessler, a grief specialist and co-author, with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, of On Grief and Grieving (Scribner, 2005). But how you address the deaths of beloved family members is so much more important. “This is one of the most crucial experiences you will interact with your employees on,” Kessler says. “They will remember how you handled this. This is a moment that will be important in retention.”

Grief experts recommend 20 days of bereavement leave for close family members.

Regardless of whether it’s a parent, spouse, child, cousin or close friend who dies, returning to work only three to four days after the loss can be difficult. Most people are so involved in planning the funeral services and calling family and friends that they don’t have the time they need to process their feelings, says Carol Mortarotti Mason, a grief recovery coach. “All of a sudden you’re back at work, and you’re still in a state of shock,” she says.

  1. Show Empathy

Often, when a co-worker returns to work after the death of a loved one, we don’t know what to say—so we don’t say anything. But staying silent can make the grieving co-worker feel isolated. Here are four ways to show your colleague you care, according to David Kessler, founder of, and Adam Grant, co-author of Option B:

  • Show empathy. “I’m glad you are back, and we’re here for you.”
  • “We can’t change what happened, but if there is anything we can do to make your life easier, know that we are all here for you.”
  • Acknowledge that grief is ongoing. “How are you today?” is better than “How are you?” Grant says, because it allows people to answer honestly beyond just responding, “I’m fine.”
  • ​Show up with a specific offer. But make it clear that it’s OK if the person wants to decline.
  • “I’m in the lobby if you want to talk. I will be here for the next hour whether you come down or not.”
  • Take your cues from the griever. “I’d love to hear more about your loved one whenever that might be convenient for you. I want to respect your privacy.”
  1. Be Careful What You Say

Here are five phrases to avoid when talking with a colleague who has just lost a loved one:

  • ​“You’re going to be fine.”
  • ​“You’re still young, so you can still have another child, get married again, etc.”
  • ​“He/She is in a better place.”
  • ​“Everything happens for a reason.”
  • ​“Time heals everything.”

While well-intended, these phrases focus on trying to make the loss go away, Kessler says, rather than acknowledging its magnitude.

  1. Offer Financial Support

​Many large corporations have set a high standard, and many smaller businesses may not be in a position to dole out a month’s worth of paid leave—for any reason. Fortunately, there are creative ways HR professionals can support employees when they need it most. For instance, if a team member needs more time off following the death of a loved one, consider asking other staff members to donate their annual leave. Typically, donations pour in and the grieving individual winds up with more leave than he or she needs. If the grief is profound, HR Managers can encourage the employee to get a note from his or her doctor saying additional time off is needed, so that they can put the employee on sick leave or family medical leave.

Another idea is to use a more formal Employee Assistance Fund (EAF) to help workers with expenses related to funerals and other hardships, including payment of medical bills or housing costs after financial setbacks and even food, clothing and utility bills.

The EAF is funded by employee contributions, but most companies match contributions up to a certain amount.

  1. Offer Emotional Support

​Deciding when to return to work after a loss is very personal.  People often assume that appearing at work a few days after a loved one dies means it wasn’t that big a loss, but that’s not a fair conclusion to draw. Some individuals find work a welcome distraction from the intensity of their grief. In other cases, employees have incurred large funeral expenses, so they need to go back to work immediately to pay their bills. For dual-income couples, losing a spouse can suddenly eliminate half or more of a family’s income.

Keep in mind that every employee will deal with grief differently. “You have to look at the individual response and know that no two will be alike,” says Kessler, who is also founder of

When Kessler works with grieving clients, he says, it’s not the HR policy they complain about; it’s how their managers and co-workers reacted toward them as they tried to transition back to work.

For instance, when Jeffers returned to work after her Mom died, she found it difficult to focus and would often cry in the middle of the day. Although her boss tried to be patient, he would often make insensitive comments such as, “I know you’re going through things, but we are in a huge growth period and we need everyone to be as focused as possible” and “I understand it was a loss, but we’re not paying you to sit around and do nothing.”

While she was on her three-day bereavement leave, Jeffers was expected to respond to e-mails, and her boss even called her during the funeral when she didn’t respond to his texts. In the end, she quit her job soon after returning to work because she felt disrespected by her boss.

It’s essential that co-workers, HR and managers acknowledge that a huge loss has occurred in the employee’s life, Kessler says. He offers these guidelines for dealing with an employee who has lost a loved one:

  • Ask the employee, or a co-worker who is close to the employee, how he or she would like you to communicate with staff that he or she will be out of the office. If the bereaved individual doesn’t want to share much, simply state, “Jane had a loss in her immediate family and will be out for the next couple weeks.”
  • Be aware of when the funeral is taking place and whether the employee is traveling to get there. Refrain from contacting the employee during those times, and ask the person’s manager to do the same.
  • Send flowers and consider making a donation in the loved one’s memory to a recommended charity.
  • At the very least, have everyone sign a card.
  • Encourage the employee to make use of your employee assistance program.
  • If the employee learns about the death while at work, he or she will often come to HR with the news—so remember to expect the unexpected. Keeping a binder of resources (ie. Grief counselors, funeral homes, tax attorneys, florists, etc) on hand can be helpful.



Source: L. R. Roepe “How to Support Employees through Grief and Loss” Retrieved 3/6/20 from [Blog Post]