At a Loss

How companies can help employees who are grieving.

The loss of a loved one is hard to deal with across the board. And when you’re trying to manage your grief while also holding down a full-time job, it can get especially challenging.

As founder and CEO of Valerie’s House, which offers grief support services for children and their families at locations in Fort Myers, Naples and Punta Gorda, Angela Melvin has heard plenty of stories. Like the woman was fired after returning to work because she couldn’t focus after the loss of her spouse. Or the grieving parents who are “avoided like the plague” at their jobs.

“You don’t just get over it,” says Melvin, who lost her own mother (the inspiration for Valerie’s House) at age 10. “It’s not take three days and come back and you’re the same. You are different; your life has shifted.”

She says it’s important for employers to realize the effects a significant loss can have on their employees—and to work with them to help them through it. “It’s a matter of recognizing that this has been a lifechanging experience for this person through no fault of their own,” says Melvin. “It’s about having compassion and saying, ‘Let’s develop a plan. Let’s do this together.’”

Almost everyone is going to deal with a loss at some point in their careers. Melvin shares with us what employers can do to help their employees who are grieving.

Create a bereavement policy. Neither federal nor Florida law requires that employers provide employees with either paid or unpaid bereavement leave. Despite that fact, a company would be wise to create a policy on bereavement.

Ideally, a company’s employee handbook should provide its staff with information about bereavement leave and to whom it extends. Does it apply just for the loss of immediate family, or can employees take leave in other situations as well?

Talk with your grieving employee. “The employer needs to sit down with the employee—when they’re ready—and talk about where they’re at and what they’re capable of doing,” says Melvin. “It starts with a conversation.”

That discussion can help both parties come up with a plan that gives the employee the time and support they need but also addresses a return to work. This is also a good time to find out what information the employee wants communicated to the rest of the office—and how—about their loss.

Provide flexibility when you can. “Everyone grieves differently; grief is very personal,” says Melvin. “It just takes time and support. If that person is valued, treat them with care.”

Maybe a leave of absence is a possibility. Or the employee can return to work part-time for a while before building back up to a full-time workload. At some point, bring the other people on the team who may have to pick up some slack temporarily into the conversation around a game plan.

Don’t hide from the situation. Avoiding a grieving employee or coworker can often make them feel worse. “It’s OK to go up to someone and say, ‘I know this has got to be very hard,’” says Melvin. “It’s OK to say, ‘I’m thinking of you; I’m here to go get lunch.’”

Realize the lifeline a job may provide. A job that an employee truly enjoys doing may help them think about something besides their loss.

“Life has changed for them; one consistent should be their job,” says Melvin. “It can almost be their saving grace. Employers need to recognize how important of a role they do play in being that stable place where the employee can feel focused and get their mind off their grief.”

Understand that some things may change. A major loss can sometimes inspire people to recalibrate their whole lives. “Perhaps if they weren’t feeling valued before it becomes apparent after they go through a devastating life change,” says Melvin. “So sometimes it’s the employee who opts out, because they recognize that there needs to be a new purpose.”

But employees often come out on the other side stronger than before. “A lot of times people who are grieving are able to channel their grief and become even more focused,” she says. “The way I look at it is, the more you give it comes back in spades. If you’re a manager who’s there for an employee and really walk with them in this very difficult time, what would that mean in the long run? For an employee to look back and say that in my darkest hour the company took care of me, that’s invaluable.”