Managing and supporting grieving employees

by HCA17 Oct 2013

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 had 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.


Further reading
Tips for dealing with death in the workplace

How should HR handle the death of an employee?

More information on leave entitlements can be found at


  • by Anne Sayles 17/10/2013 3:16:25 PM

    I don't think you can even put a time limit (within reason) on the amount of leave required for a bereavement - it varies from person to person and what their individual requirements are. I also believe that Management support is an absolute must for any employee going through this situation. It may not be asking the employee all the time about how they are feeling, but making sure that they do know if they need to talk, shed a few tears, or just need to go for a walk, that you will be there to support them. Grief is such a personal thing and so many of us handle it in different ways, there is no "One size fits all" solution.

  • by Diane Mason 17/10/2013 3:31:53 PM

    How lovely to hear the viewpoint from each persepctive. As the People & Services Manager, I have also had to lead our teams through grief in losing two of our employees within 1 years and supporting others in their personal loss. However it just doesn't compare with having to face the sudden and tragic loss of my own eldest son last year. My immediate team, Management and the Directors were so very understanding and 'picked up the slack' while I was on leave for 3 weeks. I truly felt that it had a great deal to do with the example I had already set for them in how to deal kindly with others, that helped them to respond to my loss. As the only female manager I was conscious that the response from my male counterparts would be less emotive, but they were all very understanding - each in their own way. Critically I think the question all good HR professionals and manage shoud simply ask is "what can I do to help you get through this time". Offering a personal helping hand is really demonstating more than just 'company consideration or protocol and means the most to the person who is coming to terms with such loss. I'm so very grateful that I was supported to be able to continue contributing in my role.

  • by Michael Ginsberg 18/10/2013 1:14:20 AM

    I lost my parents twelve days apart last year (Dad 8/22/12, Mom 9/3/12). At the time I was working from home doing contract recruiting for a major consulting firm. I never expected to receive the caring and support from people that I had never met as my family went through this devastating experience. I was recruited by my current employer in between my parents' passings. They too were incredibly accomodating to my situation, putting the job on hold until I was able to interview with them and being very understanding about my family obligations as we were in the process of relocating to Nashville. While I think I've always been an understanding and caring person, I've found myself being even more empathetic to coworkers and friends experiencing a loss. From my own situation, I've learned that healing and grief are an ongoing process and that rough days and tough minutes can come unexpectedly and that we need to be as understanding as possible when our coworkers go through such tough experiences.

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