How to Support Your Grieving Team Member in the Workplace

Welcome to my Success With Employees Podcast which will help you to navigate some of the difficulties you might come up against as a manager or leader.

Today, I want to talk about a sensitive subject, how to support your grieving team members in the workplace.

The death of someone close to us is always painful and challenging. When someone dies, our grief is often accompanied by feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, fear, or other emotions. These feelings affect our relationships with coworkers, friends, family members, and even strangers.

Grief is natural, it happens to everyone at some point in their lives. So it’s important to support and look after your employees in this period.

The first thing is, this is about being a good human being as well as a good boss and being known as a business that’s known for caring about its employees.

It’s important to recognise that when people feel like their bosses don’t care about them, they leave. Think about the recruitment and training you’ve carried out and compare that to giving some time to your employees to support them.

The best way to get the most out of your team is to look after your team, and it has been shown that those who are valued and supported are very loyal to the business and will go that extra mile.

And let’s be honest, what does it say about you as a manager if you can’t show basic human empathy to someone who is in pain?

So what can you do as a manager to make the grieving journey easier for your team member?

As a manager, when your team member first tells you about the death of someone, they were close to, take the steps to support them.

Firstly, discuss what they want the rest of the team told.

People are all different individuals, and not everyone wants full details shared. So explore what the person would like shared with the team and if they want you as a manager to do this.

Next, agree on how you will stay in touch.

Discuss the initial time off needed compassionately and agree on when you will next speak. Explain to the person what the company policy is around the amount of compassionate leave they can take.

Some managers keep in touch via messages or email, but I would advocate always having a call to keep the conversation going and for you as a manager to identify ways that you can support the person.

Number three, arrange for a card to be sent.

I remember receiving flowers and a card from work when my dad died, and it meant a lot. Showing the person they are thought of will make them feel more valued and supported.

Tip four is to establish the support needed.

Depending on the circumstances of the death, the person may need some support. Signpost the person to organisations that can help. If the person lives near to work, could a close team member get some shopping in for them or support them in other ways?

If your business has employee assistance, then make sure you share the details with a team member in case they want to ring them for support.

Each person is different and some people will come back to work a lot quicker than others, and often that is to take their mind off what has happened. Some people judge that this means that you weren’t close to the deceased, but you really can’t make those assumptions.

Another assumption we often make is around the closeness of a relative or friend. For example, people may consider you won’t be grieving because it was an aunt, yet if you spent a lot of time with a person, then it will hit you hard.

We need to stop making these assumptions.

When my dad died, I only took a day off, and at the time I was working in a very fast-moving role that was also quite stressful at times.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved that role.

What happened next gave me a lesson to take forward with my team.

My manager never had a real conversation with me after my dad died, or at least no one-to-ones, which would’ve helped. No support too, and that left me feeling unsupported and upset that she didn’t care enough to be there for me.

This affected how we worked together as I felt I had lost trust and I didn’t feel understood. It created a wide chasm between us and it was really difficult to find a way across it.

As a manager, we have a duty of care to our team members, so you need to be checking in and watching out for signs of stress.

This is when it’s important you take the time to check in with your team members daily and ask them, “How are you today?”

If you are noticing particular signs of stress and upset, which is only natural, then in a one-to-one talk about what support they need but don’t insist on it because all that does is put their back up and make the situation worse.

Three times I went through a grieving process when I lost someone close to me and each time it was clear that the managers and leaders weren’t trained to handle grief.

Grieving doesn’t follow a linear approach, it ebbs and flows and appreciating that with your team member will make a difference.

In so many businesses, the grieving person is expected to just get on with it and continue as if nothing has happened. Support needs to be long-term.

I recall one day sitting in the middle of the office and someone saying things about their brother.

I’d recently lost mine. I burst into noisy tears.

My manager who was sitting next to me was clueless as to how to respond and started laughing nervously. They made a bit of a joke of it, but what I needed at that point was a breakaway from the desk with a good old cup of tea and just a chance to offload.

So many managers shy away from these conversations.

Many are frightened of putting their foot in it or struggling with their emotions.

Make your workplace a place where compassion overrides everything else.

Allowing a grieving person the time to share their feelings is so important, and in the case of when my dad died and I soldiered on, it resulted in me having a heart attack.

I didn’t like to let anyone down, and I must admit I was a bit of a control freak when under pressure. So if my manager had sat down and with empathy explored what support I needed, then it probably wouldn’t have gotten to ill health.

As a manager, you need to remember each of your team members is an individual and each person reacts differently to grief.

When your team member returns to work, here are some pointers to help you.

The first one is to have a one-to-one on the day they are back.

Before you meet the person, plan the conversation.

Consider what your opening line needs to be.

Be clear on the company policies and how you can offer support.

Consider what you want to get out of the session and how you will support your team member.

This is really about them and their needs. Be led by the team member, show empathy and be selective with the language used. Listen to the employee and how they describe what has happened and take your cue from them.

If you have silence, don’t rush to fill it. People appreciate the time to reflect and think. Have information with you to signpost the employee to relevant organisations if required and don’t beat yourself up because you haven’t got the answers. You are not trained in this area.

So signpost to the right place is the best approach you can take.

Don’t be rigid on what they need to do as you are not in their shoes. And although it can feel hard, don’t compare experiences you’ve had.

Don’t be frightened of a grieving person sharing their emotions. It is a natural part of grieving, and the more we don’t flinch from this, the more we help our team by stopping a status of silence around grief.

We make it harder for people to recover and find the support they need. Now more than ever, we are seeing a lot of grief around us, and the last thing we need to do is isolate people in the workplace.

If you have built trust with your team members, it will make it easier to have these conversations.

Point two is just to be there for the person.

Sometimes your team member doesn’t need any actions.

They simply want you to comfort and listen to them.

What helped me the third time was a very supportive team member who checked in daily with me and who let me have little conversations about how I was feeling.

We were working remotely at the time, and just someone picking the phone up made me feel less isolated.

The main thing here is don’t pretend it hasn’t happened. Be open to having conversations and don’t expect the grief to disappear quickly.

Let the person share stories about their loved one because that helps the grieving process rather than bottling it all up.

Make sure you have informal catch-ups to see how things are going.

Next comes appreciating performance may slip for the grieving person.

When you are in the throes of grief, it is so easy to feel as if you are in a fog and as a result, you make mistakes, you get angry and you struggle with concentration. It often feels that you are not in the room but elsewhere.

As a manager, expect your team member to have a dip in their performance.

If you are seeing this, don’t brush it under the carpet.

Work with your employee to find ways of helping.

It could be things like reducing their workload, changing some of their tasks or reducing their hours worked. Discuss what will help the person and listen closely for pointers and realise it may take quite a few weeks to get back to past performance levels.

When performance issues continue, what to do is the next question.

If it has been quite a while and your employees still struggling with their performance, then it’s time to sit down formally and explore what will help them get their performance back up.

You will know what performance was like before, so this can be the standard you use to measure. Discuss expectations and goals and have an action plan that the employee buys into.

My podcast released in January 2022 called How to Identify and Manage Poor Performance can help you in this area.

By supporting our team members and making it okay to talk about grief, we stop it from slipping into other areas such as ill health, sick absences, depression and anxiety, and things like substance abuse.

Time and time again, when I speak to colleagues who have been well supported with their grief in the workplace, I hear that they value the employer and are more engaged.

With what we’ve been through with the Pandemic and more over the last few years, we need to get better at supporting our team members with grief.

Struggling with difficult conversations such as team members’ performance or behaviour, or sharing a message around changes in the workplace?

Then my Difficult Conversations Mentoring sessions will give you the tools and the techniques to feel more confident and have a successful conversation. Book an exploratory call.

Well, that’s it for today. I hope you found this useful.

This is the People Mentor signing off. Thank you for listening.

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