How to support grieving employees

Managing loss is hard enough - in isolation it's devastating

How to support grieving employees

It’s always really hard to manage the loss of a loved one. But what if you have to do it without proper closure or the support of friends and family? That’s likely what losing someone during the pandemic feels like. You can’t safely visit them or say your final goodbyes with lockdowns in place. You may not even be able to meet your loved ones for a comforting hug, words or the quiet physical presence of a strong support network as you cope with the grief.

A crucial step to helping you achieve some form of closure is being able to say your final goodbyes to your loved one. Unfortunately, with the pandemic raging on, it would have been difficult or near impossible to do so, due to strict restrictions around hospital visits and mass gatherings at funerals and wakes.

Through the pandemic Singapore gradually allowed more people to attend funerals: from a maximum of 10 people, including event personnel, to about 30 people. Singapore tried to increase the number to 50 attendees when things seemed steadily under control in April, but another wave struck and we’re back to a cap of 30 attendees.

While 30 sounds plenty, those from bigger families or close friends of the departed may miss out on the opportunity for that final send off as they give way to immediate family members to attend the event. And these limitations aren’t even for COVID-related deaths – these probably have stricter rules and won’t allow any visits whether the person was alive or after their passing.

Read more: Saying goodbye: How to support an employee through loss

Dealing with grief in isolation

Let’s say an individual has accepted COVID restrictions to be a normal part of life and manages to cope with the loss without getting that “physical” sense of closure. The next best step to surviving the grief is to rely on a strong support network. However, if you’re under lockdown or face restrictions on social gatherings or visits, you might feel a little disconnected from friends and family. Sure, video calls and messages can help, but it’s not the same thing, and can make the mourning period especially hard for those who desire the close comfort of loved ones.

What’s worse, a study released in February 2021 found that one in three respondents reported feeling “serious loneliness” amidst the pandemic. The groups of people most at-risk of feeling “frequently” lonely were young adults (61%) and mothers with young children (51%). A worrying two in five young adults (43%) reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak. About half of them said they felt that way because no one had taken time to ask how they were doing in a way that made them feel “genuinely cared” for.

It should be noted that the study, conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, did focus on American respondents only, but it can give us an idea of how people have been emotionally and mentally affected by the pandemic. To offer a Singaporean context, a study by Cigna in June 2020, at the peak of the crisis found that 43% of local respondents reported feeling isolated, with another half saying they felt left out. In addition, about two in five said they didn’t have anyone to talk to, with another 46% saying they didn’t have someone who “really understood them”.

These findings are especially alarming if you consider how everyone goes through different experiences and handles crises in their own unique way. Hence, if you feel isolated or as though you have no one to talk to, experiencing loss or a death in your life can hit you extra hard, making it even tougher to cope through the grief.

Read more: Are you okay? The power of storytelling in mental health

How to support people through grief

So as an employer, what can you do to support someone going through grief amidst a prolonged pandemic? “It is definitely more difficult, because it is quite difficult to have a visit to give that physical comfort to the other person,” said Ang Sze Pheng, director of HR for APAC at WWT. “At the same time we want to be sensitive about it. At WWT, unfortunately, we did have a couple of employees that experienced [a loss].

“As a start, it is on the leadership, like the manager, [company] communications, and leaders to very quickly send their condolences to the employees. Also, it is always our practice that the first thing we ask is, ‘What do you need from us? Is there anything that we can do to help?’”

Following that, employers can offer support according to the needs of the individual, be it time off to grieve, some space and understanding for them when they’re back at work, a listening ear from a willing co-worker or even professional help through employee assistance programs.

It’s known that people cope with grief differently – some need the time to go through the classic five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Others would prefer to bury themselves in work to try and move on from the loss. Whatever the case, managing a grieving employee requires empathy, heightened sensitivity, flexibility and understanding.

Support from teammates can also go a long way, but it all depends on how comfortable an individual is with sharing the very personal news. “If the employee is comfortable about sharing the news, then we will share it with the larger group, so that people can send their condolences to the employee,” Ang told HRD. “It’s not about being nosy or whatsoever but it’s to provide that support to the grieving employee. Also, to remind the rest of the employees that they’re going through a difficult time, so please give him or her the space and time to grieve, which is very important.”

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