One of the most challenging experiences the recently bereaved face is the return to work. The pressure to step back into professional roles or to find employment may be urgent for economic welfare. However, significant loss such as the death of a loved one cannot be escaped or put aside by an eight-hour shift. Additionally, many people routinely work much more than forty hours a week, sometimes on more than one job, and work often “comes home” with us as cell phones, deadlines and after-hours meetings have become the norm. Add the newer stress caused by COVID-19’s effect on work-related issues, and you have a recipe for high stress and very little relief. Employers, however, can do a lot to ease the situation. Four basic points can help valuable employees maintain their place in the business and still deal with personal loss and recovery.
When it comes to responsibilities and workflow, people often assume a much different persona than they do in social or other settings, one that might preclude compassion in favor of professionalism, task accomplishment, and cooperation with the “team” as a whole. Thus, the following suggestions consider all employees and what each can expect from a supervisor, CEO, or business owner.
Often unconsciously, employers, colleagues and clients make the return much harder for a bereaved employee for these reasons:
- Inexperience with loss, especially loss from suicide or other violent means.
- No related plan in place.
- Inflexible work environment and/or schedule.
Inexperience with Loss
Traumatic or unexpected/unusual loss is shocking. With any loss of a family member or friend, there is usually a period of compassion during which one might give condolences. This sometimes very short span of time is dictated by cultural norms though these may differ as young and older employees commonly work together. Phrases repeated from much earlier times might be reflexive reactions.
“I am so sorry.”
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
Worse, “This was his time.” Or, “She’s in a better place.”
While it is always appropriate to express your sorrow, some of the above increase the feeling of isolation a bereaved employee is already experiencing. Glossing over their pain and the effect it is having sets apart someone who probably needs to talk at least a little. Minimizing hurt or suggesting you know more than you actually do about how a person is feeling (even if you are familiar with his or her religious beliefs or lack thereof) is disrespectful of what must be endured in the moment. This practice, though often well-intended, adds unnecessary hurt and causes not companioning in grief but barriers to healing. Confusion that comes with loss causes many to rethink long-held beliefs. Most need time to sort out feelings once certain in their minds.
This does not mean a person is incapable of doing a job or taking on new responsibilities. But it does mean learning about the many ways the bereaved respond to loss is a smart step.
No Related Plan in Place
Sometimes food, cards, and flowers speak for us. These are nice gestures, but more important is having a plan in place to facilitate a healthy work environment. Just as you have an emergency plan everyone understands related to weather, fire, hostile customers, shootings at work, employee suicide both while at work and outside work), you need to have a “Bereavement Return to Work Plan.” Include concerns of privacy, employee interactions (gossip, blame, bullying), and mental health needs as well as what questions, comments, information, and actionable steps you wish to provide. Find help with this online or through your Human Relations Department.
Keep your plan simple, sincere, and fact-based. Understand we all grieve differently. Grief is a process, sometimes lengthy and often hidden. Ask yourself what you would want others to say or do around you if you were the one who had experienced similar tragedy. Use answers as a guide.
Inflexible Work Environment or Schedule
When in doubt, opt for some contact and encouragement over ignoring an employee or coworker. Be patient. Offer hope. Lead by example. Add options like differing work hours, work at home choices, flexible extended time off for counseling or childcare, and simple break times. The payoff will be a more comfortable employee who will work twice as hard and a more relaxed overall work environment, which translates into greater productivity.
Now is a good time to think about this topic, no matter how large or small your organization is, due to efforts already in place regarding economic reopening plans during COVID-19. If you need help, select people who can research and provide feedback or do the planning for you. Facts, as you probably know, are weapons against fear in business. Use them.