Managing and supporting grieving employees

When an employee loses someone close to them, it’s hard to know the best way to offer help and support. HRM asked the experts how they would approach the situation.

Losing a close friend or family member, a child or spouse, is devastating for all of us. But when it happens to a co-worker or employer, it can be difficult to know how to support them. While there are policies in place for grievance leave, what do you do when the affect is felt for weeks or months?

Licensed therapist Steve Havertz knows from experience the difference between having a supportive manager, and management that seems to view your struggle as a cost to them.

Havertz’s wife died in 2003, but leave constraints meant he had to return to work after just 10 days. Despite the quick turnaround the positive relationship he had with his manager made it easier to manage a return to work.

“I had a great relationship with my boss and she was always asking how I was doing. That made a huge difference. I felt supported and she was understanding and supportive,” he said. “I thought I was an expert on grief and loss until I actually experienced it two times. Now I really am an expert personally and professionally.”

A few years later Havertz’s young daughter was diagnosed with cancer. He worked hard to balance full-time employment with her cancer treatments, but while his direct supervisor was supportive he received emails from the upper management querying why he needed the leave.

“It left a very bad taste in my mouth,” he said. “Then when Emmalee died [in 2009], my boss has changed and the ‘uppers’ were the same and both not supportive. I did not dare talk about any of my feelings and even let them know I was struggling.”

With further conflict over the next six to 12 months, Havertz ended up leaving the company. The difference wasn’t in how much leave he got, but in how caring his company was.

“It makes all the difference if the effected employee feels support and is asked how they are doing for months after the loss,” he said. “Talk to them weekly to see how they are carrying the load of work, emotions, family and personal health. I don't think the amount of time off is the issue, it is the amount of concern felt and support given.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by New York clinical psychologist Nerina Garcia-Arcement, who said supporting employees is economically, as well as morally responsible. Grieving employees often feel emotionally and cognitively impaired and are less productive.

“They will likely not be as productive, as their attention, memory and concentration will be impacted by their emotional response to their loss,” Garcia-Arcement said. “This is a time when employers can show sensitivity and as a by-product gain increased loyalty and appreciation from all employees.”

That employee is likely to return to work feeling grateful for the support they received from their employer and "give" back to their employers through increase productivity, Garcia-Arcement added.


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