As a leader, you plan and proactively problem-solve daily. Carrying the weight of your company on your shoulders may be a common worry. Receiving a call from an employee saying he or she lost a loved one or is facing some other major life challenge? Likely not.
Despite our best-laid plans, life has a way of throwing things off kilter. Baz Luhrman once said, “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind. The kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”
For me, the thing that never crossed my mind hit at 3 p.m. on a Friday in 2016. I was finishing up a project proposal when my phone buzzed in its case on my desk. It was my mom. I answered, and she asked if I was sitting down. My dad had passed away unexpectedly at the age of 58. After I hung up with my mom and talked to my husband, the first person I called was my boss.
She was not prepared for my call. Not many people are.
In the five years since my dad passed away, I’ve chosen to share my experience with grief. Looking taboos in their dark eyes, I’ve witnessed the immense discomfort my story can bring. I used to take the blank stares personally. Now, I know people lack the tools to allow grief a spot in the workspace.
The longer you work with humans who experience joy and suffering, the more likely you will work with an employee or teammate living with grief.
The Atlantic recently published an article sharing the immense toll of loss from COVID-19. They estimate 3.1 million Americans have lost a close relative due to the virus. “Researchers used that model to develop what they call a “bereavement multiplier”: At any given time, the number of mourners is roughly nine times the cumulative number of people who have died.”
And the numbers continue to climb.
We talk about creating seats at the table. Many leaders fail when creating seats that hold whole people. Yes, even the hurting and healing ones.
Your words, or lack thereof, significantly impact a grieving employee’s experience at work. Consider the following to help you support your team navigate grief in the workplace.
1. Create a company bereavement policy.
When I received my horrible news, I had no clue what the company’s formal bereavement policy was. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of company norms, and that put me in an uncomfortable position when asking for time to be with family.
Does your company provide flexible time in the immediate aftermath of a loss? The funeral is just the first step toward handling official matters. Paperwork, closing bank accounts, and dealing with life insurance policies can take months. Each task is emotionally taxing and takes time away from work. Does your policy honor the loss of close family members? Are you extending leave for spouses, grandparents, or even close friends? How are you planning for folks to be impacted by COVID?
By having a formal policy on the books, you acknowledge that loss is part of life and therefore something that will also affect work. If you face this situation, you can use the policy to provide options for the employee. In creating or updating such policies, you may also want to consider what other life changes (besides death of a loved one) the policy might apply to — divorce, natural disaster, etc.
2. Talk with your employee about next steps face-to-face.
Every individual experiences grief and loss differently. Some people need to ease back into work slowly, while others prefer to be at the office to immerse themselves in productive distraction. Take the guess-work out of the process by arranging a time to speak with your employee about their preferences in person. If that’s not possible, pick up the phone.
I wasn’t asked how I wanted to share my news. Instead, a group email went out to the team. I would have preferred the message to come from me. Others may feel immense relief if you take that burden off their to-do list. Email feels safer, but by taking time to ask what the employee needs face-to-face, you honor their preferences. You can also use this time to create short-term plans to make sure the business’ needs continue to be met.
3. Offer suggestions and choices for follow-through.
Grief makes everyday decisions difficult. Choosing what to wear or what to eat for breakfast feels impossible. When bosses and caring teammates say, “Let me know how I can help,” this becomes one more task for the grieving person to undertake.
Instead, offer suggestions and ask for permission to follow through. Statements like, “I’ll have the team bring dinner by on Thursday, would that be okay?,” or, “I can finish this blog post for you, would that be okay?,” address a perceived need and helpful solution in one sentence.
As much as you may want to offer help, it’s equally important to respect boundaries. If the griever politely declines the first time you ask, give them space and try again in a couple of weeks. They may be willing to accept help later.
4. Channel Sheryl Sandberg and ask, “How are you feeling today?”
It’s challenging to ask those who are grieving how they are doing. You may be afraid your questions will overwhelm or tip the person over the edge into sadness. “How are you feeling today?” is a specific question that allows people to narrow in on the now.
Sheryl Sandberg offered the same advice to Business Insider when she lost her husband. When I was asked this, it gave me permission to be honest with my emotions while also remembering I had control of the present. I could feel sad in the moment and trust that the strong emotions would pass.
5. Recognize you can’t project-manage grief.
Companies have quarterly goals, monthly milestones, and project deadlines to meet. Your team makes objectives, tracks outcomes, and measures success based on inputs and outputs.
Grief doesn’t work this way. You can’t predict emotions and triggers or chart next steps based on personal work done to move through loss. As you continue to lead your teams toward your goals, remember that the person experiencing loss is moving through the process at their own pace. Your organization may be ready to move on, but your employees’ lives are forever changed.
Holidays and anniversaries are hard. So can be the start of football season, or the day of the Academy Awards, or other personal days that once were significant. Honor the milestones, and never rush a person to move on before he or she is ready.
For the long haul
Facing grief is uncomfortable. You can equip yourself and your team with tools to lead others in the face of loss. We’re going to be in this climate for a long time. Loss is a part of life. As a leader, you can help make the moving forward more bearable. By taking these simple considerations into account, I’m hoping you’ll never use the phrase “There are no words” at work again.
Katie Huey is a writer, marketer, and facilitator. She believes in the power of story and the beauty found in sharing personal experience. Her work has appeared in Invoke Magazine, Conscious Company Magazine, and Hello Humans. You can follow more of her story on her blog 52 Beautiful Things.