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Steps to address grief in the workplace after lockdown

As employees start to return to work, now is a good time to start planning the support for those who have been bereaved during lockdown.

Employees who feel looked after by HR in their time of need will experience a much healthier return to work than those who are left to take care of themselves.

Due to prohibited office access there may not be a clear indication of who has have suffered a bereavement. But identifying people who have been affected can be determined by line managers during catch-up calls, or via an email survey.

If an employee has died of coronavirus, the chances are that colleagues will not have had the chance to say goodbye. A book of condolences, or a memorial day could be created to provide that opportunity. Remember, all grief is felt at 100%, it’s just the intensity of grief that is different.

Grievers may struggle to concentrate, they might be tired, listless, weary, or bereft. As time goes on, the symptoms of grief may evolve. After the initial shock, they might become short-tempered, forgetful, vacant, or irritable.

Longer term, unresolved grief can affect health, and the longer it goes on, the harder it is for grievers to recognise that they need support.

If grief isn’t addressed, then there needs to be a limit of expectations of grieving employees by not assuming that they will be able to perform at the same level.

All grief is unique, and people grieve in different ways. It could take months or years before an individual is able to perform at the level they once did.

Employee productivity levels may significantly reduce at a cost to the business. The other concern is that they might be using work as a distraction from their feelings and throwing themselves into overdrive, which could lead to burnout.

Here are 10 steps to support employees:

1. Ask how they would like their situation communicated to others.

2. Look out for non-verbal communication – this includes tone of voice as well as facial and body signals.

3. Encourage employees to talk to each other by creating a safe space to do so.

4. Acknowledge their loss, not just in a one-off conversation but make time to check in with them regularly and use the deceased person’s name.

5. Don’t ask how they are, instead ask what’s been happening with them during lockdown for instance. This will avoid the ‘I’m fine’ answer. No one likes to feel sad, so they do what most people are taught, they pretend that they’re ok. Open questions will allow them to feel able to talk more freely.

6. Listen to their answer without interrupting them.

7. Avoid the temptation to compare their experiences to your own. That’s not to say you can’t talk about your experience but say something like: “I can’t imagine how you feel. I know when my dad died, I felt…”

8. Be present when they’re talking. When other people talk about their losses it can remind you of losses you’ve experienced. That’s normal. But it can take you out of the moment.

9. If they cry, that’s ok. Reassure them that crying is a normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind (loss of a relative or friend, loss of routine, loss of a pet, loss of feeling safe…). If you feel tears in your eyes, that’s ok, too. You’re showing empathy.

10. You don’t need to fix them; they just need to be heard.

Addressing grief now will help employees with their recovery and will undoubtedly increase their loyalty.

Carole Henderson is managing director and training lead at Grief Recovery Europe.

Further reading:

Back to basics...bereavement support

Paid parental bereavement leave law introduced

Legal HR tips: Managing compassionate leave

Top tips for establishing a mentally-healthy workplace