How to Manage a Grieving Team Member
Supporting People in Times of Sadness
If you've experienced personal loss, you'll know just how painful it can be. Perhaps you've suffered a bereavement, broken up with your partner, or lost your house. Naturally, when events like these happen, emotions tend to take over and your priorities can change. Work is often the last thing you'll want to think about.
Managing a grieving team member has its challenges, too. Should you act like nothing's happened? Or, should you talk to him or her about it? But, what if you say the wrong thing? How do you respond if he gets angry or upset?
And then there are the practicalities to consider. How will his grief affect his work? Will he need to take time off? Will his workload need to be reduced? Will you need to arrange cover?
In this article, we'll explore what grief is and how it can affect people. We'll also look at strategies that you can use to ease the burden of work when someone in your team experiences personal loss.
What Is Grief?
Grief is a feeling of intense sorrow and mental distress, caused by a sense of loss. In her 1969 book, "On Death and Dying," psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified five distinct stages of grieving:
- Denial: refusing to accept that the loss has occurred.
- Anger: feeling angry or frustrated with everyday tasks or work.
- Bargaining: believing that changing something will reverse the loss.
- Depression: feeling unmotivated, disengaged and discouraged.
- Acceptance: coming to terms with the loss, and feeling more emotionally stable.
Not everyone will experience these stages in exactly the same way, or even in the same order. Some people may skip a stage or spend longer in some stages than in others.
During the grieving process, emotions can be unpredictable. They can range from sadness and depression, to guilt, anger, or even relief. The impact that the situation has on a person's work can also vary. Some people may disengage from work altogether, while others may relish the opportunity of having something else to focus on.
How to Manage a Grieving Team Member
Managing someone who's in the process of grieving is not a "tick-box exercise." Everyone is different. So, as a manager, you need to respond flexibly, and support her in a way that is unique to her needs. Here are some techniques that can help you to do this:
1. Acknowledge the Loss
The way that people in your team react to a colleague's personal loss can mean the difference between making him feel supported, and making him feel alone.
One of the most common reactions is avoidance. In her 2017 book, "Option B," for instance, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote that when she returned to work after the death of her husband, her colleagues pretended that nothing had changed. This left her feeling isolated and depressed.
People may also trivialize a loss. For instance, if someone's beloved pet dies, they might not see it as a "big deal," even if – to him – it is. Others may misunderstand loss. For example, someone might grieve the loss of a "sisterly" relationship when a sibling transitions to a new gender, but others may not consider this to be a "real" loss.
For these reasons, it's vital that you address the issue directly, but sensitively. Show compassion, and give the person who's experiencing the loss an opportunity to discuss her feelings with you.
Your team member may find it hard to acknowledge the loss that he's experienced. He might even be angry or dismissive when it's mentioned. If this is the case, take a step back. But let him know that your door's always open if, and when, he wants to talk about it.
2. Use Empathic Language
Talking to someone about the loss that she's experienced may feel awkward at first. You might be worried that you'll say something "wrong" or offensive. Use these tips to address the issue tactfully:
- Find a private place to chat. She'll unlikely want to share the news with everyone. So, go somewhere to talk where you won't be interrupted or distracted.
- Make the first move. Simply asking, "How are you feeling right now?" is a good way to start. Make it clear that anything she shares will be confidential. And honor your promise. If you don't, you risk damaging your relationship, possibly beyond repair.
- Show empathy. Demonstrate your support by "mirroring" her language. For example, if she uses the term "passed away" instead of "died," use "passed away," too.
- Avoid giving prescriptive advice. Advice can be great, but not when it feels like an order. Don't start sentences with, "You should…" and avoid comparing her experience to your own, or to someone else's. Otherwise it may feel as though you're judging her or belittling what she's going through.
- Avoid empty words. Don't use language like, "I know how you feel" or, "Things will get better." It can be easy to rely on these kind of clichéd phrases, but they rarely help, particularly in the early days of loss.
- Give him space. You may be tempted to break the silence. But, it could be that she just doesn't want to talk about it, or that she needs some quiet time to reflect on what's happened. And that's OK.
When you first talk to your team member about his loss, ask whether he wants other people on the team to know, and how he wants the information to be communicated to them. You could, for example, offer to send a team- or company-wide email that explains the situation, and that gives people permission to get in touch with him privately.
3. Check Your Organization's Leave Entitlement
Don't wait for your team member to ask you for time off. Take the lead yourself. Find out what leave she is entitled to and carefully explain the details to her.
On average, U.S. companies allow four days of paid leave for the death of an immediate family member. Most, however, don't provide it for the loss of a friend, or for other forms of loss. Bereavement leave policies also vary around the world, so if you're unsure about the exact entitlement allowed, check with your HR department.
If you think that she needs more time off, or if she wants to extend her leave, speak to your line manager. You could also consider offering her a more flexible working arrangement like part-time hours, a job-share, or a phased return to work.
And, keep in touch with her while she's off work. If it's appropriate, send her a text message or short email to find out how she's coping. If she has asked that you give her some time alone, however, be sure to respect her wishes.
4. Signpost Support
As a manager, you can offer sympathy and practical support, but you're probably not a trained counselor, and you may lack the skills or experience to help someone to cope with grief at a deeper level or in the longer term.
But, you can still help him to access this kind of help. Is counseling available through your company's health insurance, for example? Or, is there a helpline or employee support group that he could contact?
Signposting to outside services can be useful, too. Perhaps there's a local bereavement group or charity-led service that could help.
5. Arrange Cover
The circumstances of your team member's loss may be very sad, but you still need to make sure that her work gets done.
She may be able to organize and delegate tasks to her colleagues before she takes her leave. Alternatively, she may have taken time off at short notice, or she may not be in the right "headspace" to arrange this herself. If so, you'll need to pull together as a team to make sure her work is covered.
The following steps can help you here:
- Assess her workload. Go through each of her tasks and prioritize what needs to be done straight away, and what can wait.
- Delegate. Get together as a team and discuss how the tasks can be divided up. Try to distribute work evenly and fairly between people.
- Ensure that people don't get overwhelmed. Some people will be more than willing to "pitch in" and help out. Others, less so. Get everyone on board by explaining why you need their help, and offer them practical support.
- Get outside help. If your team is still feeling overloaded, consider distributing tasks beyond your team. Are there people from other departments who might be able to help? Could you take on a temporary replacement or short-term contractor?
- Keep in contact with the person on leave. When she's nearing the end of her leave period, send her a gentle reminder about her return date, and ask her whether it's still suitable or whether she needs more time.
- Recognize that work can be a good coping mechanism. She may be more than willing to dive back into work. For many people, work offers reliability and structure, and it can be a welcome distraction from personal issues.
Contingency planning can make your team more resilient when key people are unexpectedly absent. However, such plans will need to be developed in advance. So, if you haven't got one in place now, why not get prepared by drawing up your own contingency plan today?
6. Manage Their Return to Work
When your team member returns to work, things will unlikely go back to normal straight away. It could take weeks, months or even years for him to perform at the level that he once did.
Be sensitive to signs that he's not coping well, such as angry outbursts or tears. If he's finding it difficult to concentrate, see if you can scale back some of his work.
Try to ease him back into his routine by giving him simple tasks, before increasing his workload. And, check on his progress regularly, by scheduling some informal catch-ups.
Sadly, in rare cases, people may use their grief as an excuse to avoid work. If you suspect that your team member is doing this, consider how he behaved before. Did he take advantage, or often shirk work? Address this behavior by setting out clearly defined expectations and goals, and support his progress through one-on-ones.
Watch for a victim mentality, too. If you suspect that a team member has this mindset, take steps to deal with it tactfully and appropriately, using the strategies discussed in our article, Managing a Person With a Victim Mentality.
Grief is a feeling of intense sorrow and mental distress, caused by a sense of loss. We tend to think of it as something that people experience when someone dies, but grief takes many other forms, too – when a personal relationship breaks down, for instance, or if you lose your house.
The impact of grief can vary from one person to another. Some may disengage from work entirely; for others, it can provide a welcome opportunity to focus on something else. So, as a manager, it's vital that you provide the right level of support to your team member during this difficult time.
There are six techniques that can help you to do this:
- Acknowledge the loss.
- Use empathic language.
- Check your organization's leave entitlement.
- Signpost support.
- Arrange cover.
- Manage their return to work.
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