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Helping coworkers cope with bereavement

Updated: Aug 11, 2022

The loss of a loved one can be traumatic, especially if it is abrupt and unforeseen. Often, bereavement can disorient an individual’s life, and cause them to go through a period of maladaptive adjustment at work. It is important to remember that during these times, unconditional support and compassion are vital in helping an employee to cope with and overcome grief. If you know someone at work who has recently lost a loved one, or if you are grieving yourself, here are a few things you can do for yourself and others to manage this challenging period.

Temper expectations

Communication is key when dealing with a coworker in mourning. For both the employee and employer, it helps to set the expectations between both parties. Try to discuss work arrangements during these times, i.e. an employee’s capability to undertake workload, providing earlier time offs for employees to be with their family. Active communication will provide both parties with a safe space to be candid about their abilities to cope. For the employee, this is a time to be upfront about their needs. For the employer, it allows them to effectively manage their manpower to compensate for the absence of a coworker. In turn, this will allow the management to preemptively allocate resources to mitigate declines in work performances and business, guaranteeing that both parties are affected to a lesser extent.

Respect their privacy

When someone has lost a loved one, it is only natural for people to come forward to offer their support and condolences to the bereaved. However, some people may prefer to mourn in private with their families, which is perfectly fine too. During this time, coworkers should be sensitive to their colleague’s need for privacy. In this case, the HR or coworkers should refrain from discussing the matter publicly. Likewise, do not assume that a grieving colleague may wish to talk about their loss unless information is given. While it may sound like a goodwill gesture to inquire about the passing to a grieving colleague, it is best to seek out their consent before doing so.

Understand there are many ways for coworkers to show their support for a colleague without necessarily showing up or inquiring, such as assuring the bereaved of their presence if need be. Certain cultures, for example, the Chinese may offer condolence money or send a greeting card instead. Even a simple text or a call to offer condolences does wonders.

Practice empathy and forgiveness

In a time of mourning, juggling between work and grieving can be challenging for the bereaved, even with all the given support. As such, it is not uncommon for employees to exhibit maladaptive behaviors to cope with the loss. Some examples of maladaptive behaviors involve:

● Difficulty participating in collaborative projects.

● Showing up late for work.

● Compulsive smoking and/or drinking.

● Random outbursts of emotions resulting from minor triggers in daily life i.e.: unexpected episodes of crying spells, anger, or withdrawal etc.

● Inability to properly compartmentalize personal and work feelings.

Over time, these behaviors will dissipate as the individual learns to accept and process the loss on their own terms. Until then, managers and HR are encouraged to practice empathy towards employees, excusing and forgiving an employee’s mistakes or maladaptive behaviors at work, which paves way to self-acceptance and aiding in the healing process for the grieving employee.

However, if an employee’s behavior begins to disrupt not only their work but personal lives, the management has the onus of intervening for the employee and organization’s wellbeing. From addressing an employee’s maladaptive behavior at work to keeping an employee’s family abreast of the employee’s wellbeing, managers and superiors should keep a watchful eye on their people.

Utilize the Employee Assistance Program

Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, is an initiative that is designed to assist employees in overcoming challenges at work, whether it be work-related or personal. EAPs offer wide coverage on matters such as compensations, healthcare costs, accidents, employment-related matters and even grievances. Due to the enormous cost it takes for organizations to create their own EAP, many prefer outsourcing the work to EAP-dedicated agencies. When it concerns grieving, EAPs provide grief counseling/therapy to employees and conduct workshops aimed at helping the management in identifying employees who may be struggling with grieving. Furthermore, these workshops extend to employees themselves, wherein employees are taught ways to provide a safe, judgment-free space to interact with a grieving colleague.

Provide yourself with the space to grieve and recover

It is human nature for us to be affected by the emotions of others, even if we may not be the ones who are personally grieving or going through the experience. During these times, it’s important to be mindful of our feelings and emotions too, and how they may affect us. If you find yourself overwhelmed by grief, it is helpful to take time off to care for yourself. Find ways to actively manage the influx of feelings you are experiencing. Here are some pointers to self-care:

● Engaging in stress-reducing activities.

● Talking it out with your therapists/colleagues/family members.

● Getting enough sleep and having regulated mealtimes.

● Practice healthy boundaries between coworkers.

● Calling or texting your loved ones to tell them you love them.

Give yourself the permission to feel things, but take active steps to ensure that you are not compromising your mental wellbeing in an attempt to be more empathetic and kind.

It takes time

Grieving is a rite of passage that everyone goes through at a certain point of their lives. There’s an adage that perfectly sums up grieving – “Grieving is like breathing.” The more we try to suppress our grief, the harder it is for us to become whole again. To overcome grief is to learn to live with it, and that means walking through the pain and sorrow in its wake. While our loved ones may no longer be with us, they will forever remain in our hearts as beautiful memories. What makes life and the healing process all the more precious is the support and unconditional positive love that we receive from others, including our coworkers, which reminds us that we are never alone in the process.

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