The 7 most helpful things a manager can do for an employee who is grieving — and the well intentioned gestures to avoid

  • The holidays may be challenging for anyone who's experienced a loss this year.
  • We asked an HR consultant and a social worker how managers can best support employees who are struggling.
  • Remember that for some people, work is an escape from otherwise all-consuming grief. But certain workers may need their colleagues to be extra patient right now.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

2020 has been a difficult year across the board. The world is grieving collectively amid a pandemic that has taken the lives of 1.67 million people to date.

For anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one, the December holidays may be especially challenging.

Depending on the culture where you work, it can feel somewhat awkward to disclose that you're personally grieving, or even that you don't have the emotional bandwidth to shoulder your usual workload right now. It can be equally uncomfortable for a manager to figure out how to counsel an employee who's struggling.

We asked Jaime Klein, CEO of human-resources consultancy Inspire HR, and Melody Wilding, an executive coach and a licensed social worker, how managers can best support employees right now.

Supporting your employees isn't just the right thing to do, ethically speaking. Business Insider's Marguerite Ward reported on a 2002 study that found decreased productivity and increased rates of absenteeism among grieving workers cost the US more than $75 billion annually. Don't push your employees to perform as usual when it's not reasonable.

Below you'll find the most helpful things a manager can do — and the well intentioned gestures to avoid.

Create a culture that empowers employees to set boundaries

In general, Klein said, managers should aim to build a team culture that enables employees to take the time and space they need. Klein suggested having "safe words," like "I don't have capacity" or "I'm struggling a lot on the home front," which let the manager know that, for whatever reason, the employee can't take on new projects right now.

Know the signs to look out for

Managers generally aren't trained in mental-health counseling. But it helps to be able to recognize when an employee is going through a tough time.

It boils down to a "measurable difference from someone's usual baseline," Wilding said. If a person who's usually cheerful now seems persistently pessimistic, that could be a red flag.

This is when you can approach your employee and nudge them in the direction of mental-health resources. Every healthcare package has some type of mental-health benefits, Klein said. Sometimes that's an employee-assistance program, which allows employees to call and speak to a mental-health expert when they're struggling.

Wilding offered some language that managers can adapt to their own style: "As your manager, it is part of my duty to let you know that these resources are available to you."

Ask how much attention they want right now

For some people, work can be a welcome distraction from otherwise all-consuming grief. They may wince internally when colleagues bring up their loss, even if it's a well-intended gesture.

Klein encourages managers to ask their employee, during a one-on-one meeting, how open that person wants to be with the team. For example, after an employee discloses that they've experienced a loss, a manager might say, "Is it helpful to have people ask how you're doing?" If the person would prefer not to be asked, let the rest of the team know.

Don't assume they're grieving the way you would

Klein calls it "sitting in non-judgment": letting the person grieve in a way that feels right for them.

Your employee may have just lost a parent, but they may also have had a fraught relationship with that parent. Try saying something like, "I can only imagine how complicated this is," which conveys your sympathy without presuming to know exactly how they feel.

Ask 'yes or no' questions

Asking how you can help when an employee's in a difficult situation seems like Management 101. But Klein reminds managers that people in mourning often don't know what they need.

A better version of that question, Klein said, is, "Did you know that we offer [these benefits]?" You can direct the person toward the appropriate resources, or remind them that there are mental-health providers in the company's health insurance network.

Don't share your own experiences with grief

Empathy is critical here. But Klein tells managers to avoid the (well meaning) impulse to tell your employee about your experiences with grief or loss. Instead just listen while they share and emote.

Help them figure out which assignments take priority

Wilding remembered one manager she worked with who found out an employee was struggling personally. That manager told their employee, "I will really take charge of putting together this plan to help shuffle around your workload so that we have cover for all of these projects. You take the time you need to be with your family."

Taking charge, Wilding said, can be helpful — it removes the burden from the person who's grieving to figure out how to redistribute their assignments.

When someone on Klein's team experienced the loss of a loved one, she told them, "I hear in your voice how much you're doing to try to help your whole family get through this time." She let them know she would reassign their toughest project to a colleague.

"Sometimes," Klein said, "you need a leader to just take you by the virtual shoulders and say, 'I've got this. It's ok.'"

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