How to support grieving colleagues as we return to the workplace

If someone had told you in 2010 what life would be like a decade on, would you have believed them?  

An uncontrollable threat to our lives and that of our loved ones. Being told to remain in our houses, venturing out for only the basic essentials. The vast majority of workplaces closed, with employees told to work from home. Schools allowing only key workers’ children over their thresholds. It sounds like the plot of a disaster movie. 

Whether we’ve gone through the worst of the pandemic is still unknown. We have, however, begun to turn the wheel of industry again…albeit slowly.  

But things may never be the same. We may never be the same.  

Some employees coming back to the workplace may have lost loved ones to Covid-19. Others may not be grieving a physical loss, but they may feel as if they’ve lost their lives as they knew them and experience similar emotions. It’s not over-egging things to say: what used to be ‘normal life’ has changed for everyone

People may also be experiencing fear: fear that they may lose their jobs, fear over the hit the economy has taken. Fear of being near other people, a fear of connecting with others again. Fear over what they’re not able to control.  

Life used to make sense. Now, everything is uncertain. 

Before the pandemic, statistics showed that 75% of workers who resigned did so, not because they wanted to leave the company they worked for, but because they wanted to escape a bad boss. It’s no secret that many leaders and managers would have benefitted from some training on how to connect with and motivate their team, i.e. their softer skills. Given how employees may feel as they return to the workplace, this could potentially be a disaster waiting to happen for businesses across the country. Companies need to prioritise investment into leadership training, as well as reviewing their mental health policies and practices going forwards. 

Death is still a taboo subject in the workplace. Whilst time off may be granted to grieving employees as they deal with funerals, etc. after a few weeks, they’re often expected to come back to work as if nothing happened.  

Once such an employee returns to work, few people talk about their loss – either through awkwardness concerning the subject or because they don’t want to upset their grieving colleague further…either way, the returning employee’s feelings are effectively brushed under the carpet. 

Research has shown that this is counterproductive to team cohesion and loyalty to the company, and more upsetting to the colleague who has suffered the loss. 

Families are more spread out across the country nowadays, compared to past generations. We also spend more time at work than we may have a few decades ago. There’s no doubt that our work represents a huge part of our lives.  

Many of us look upon our colleagues as our support network and our friends – our wider family. Therefore, if no one acknowledged our loss when we returned to work, it would hurt. We’d surely feel even more isolated. If you consider that it’s common for the whole team, and the manager, to celebrate someone’s birthday, how devastating must it feel if everyone runs for cover should the same person lose a loved one? 

Managers should lead by example. If they talk about loss and death, it becomes easier for the rest of the team to do so, too.  

Not everyone deals with grief in the same way, so it’s a good approach to allow the employee who’s grieving to lead the way – when it comes to time off and what they’re able to deal with when they return. Some people may wish to return to work quickly, valuing structure and routine as they come to terms with their loss. Others may need a more relaxed, phased, flexible approach as they rejoin the team. They may prefer to start back on a part-time basis, and/or they may need time off again further down the line if they feel overwhelmed. The point here is that managers should continually connect with the person grieving, rather than assuming everything must be back to normal if they’re back at work.  

Don’t feel that the ‘when do you want to come back to work?’ conversation has to wait, either; for many people, whose lives will have changed overnight, discussing this at the outset will offer them some clarity during a time of emotional chaos. Talking about their return to work is good, what’s not so good is making demands…discuss the company’s policy by all means, but be prepared to be flexible if there’s the opportunity to do so (most responsible companies will allow some degree of flexibility).  

Grief isn’t linear and everyone reacts differently. There could be months – even years – between the various stages of grief, and individuals may not experience them in the right ‘order’. It’s a journey. The person dealing with their grief may act out of character at times or need extra support for a long while after their loss; if they appear to be struggling after six months or so, however, it may be an idea to chat with HR about formal support from a healthcare professional. 

If you research the Kubler Ross change curve, you’ll be able to see the different stages people experience as they move from ‘state A’ to ‘state B’. This may help those who are not grieving the loss of a loved one, but the loss of their old life. They may need help accepting how their life has changed, and to be reminded of the things that they can still control.  

There’s no reason to believe that, if managed properly, a person’s grief won’t lead to good times. A different life, yes, but not necessarily a poorer one. Experiencing the death of someone close can also prove a turning point for many – to better their situation or make drastic changes to their lives.  

For someone grieving, knowing that they have the support of their team, their manager and their employer during – and after – their moment of need will cement their loyalty more than any perk or training programme. Knowing that they’re valued as a person, rather than feeling like an invisible, small cog in a large machine, will make their return to work smoother. Knowing that their friends and colleagues will talk about their loss, rather than avoiding such conversations, will encourage them to share and be open as they come to terms with their grief. 

This is a very real situation that’s happening now. So, let’s acknowledge and address it. Let’s start as we mean to go on.