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How Employers Can Help the Bereaved in the Workplace

How Employers Can Help the Bereaved in the Workplace

NEW YORK—For the bereaved caregiver, the workplace can be a distraction from worries, a structure amidst chaos, and a place for healing. During a Cancer Care, Inc. teleconference for employers, managers, and medical and human resource departments, Amanda L. Sutton, CSW, program coordinator of bereavement services at Cancer Care, outlined some steps a supervisor can take to promote a grieving employee’s healing.

“Your task is to help the individual return to the work environment and function productively. With the realization that they can function, the person’s healing journey begins,” Ms. Sutton said.

She outlined several opportunities for helpful intervention. The first is the funeral. “Compensated time off from work can ease the pain of grief. It also demonstrates that the employer truly cares and that the employee has value,” she said. Many employers have bereavement policies that stipulate how many days an employee can take off when a family member dies. A supervisor should be aware of the policy and be ready to provide it should a bereaved employee call.

The supervisor should also be prepared to ask the employee if co-workers should be told about the death and what they should be told. For example, does the employee wish to receive condolences, cards, or emails, and does he or she want co-workers to attend the funeral?

In talking to the bereaved employee, the supervisor should try to use the name of the deceased. “The bereaved individual is fearful that the loved one will be forgotten. Using the deceased’s name helps reassure grieving employees that their loved one is special,” she said.

Easing the pressure of job responsibilities is also a big help. “Expecting too much too soon can adversely interfere with the normal grieving process,” she said. “Employees should have the opportunity to discuss their needs with their individual supervisor.”

When possible, the employee’s short-term needs should be accommodated with flexible time and work assignments. This flexible response can actually prove beneficial to the employer in that the employee often then feels more committed to the employer and the workplace.

“Fulfilling short-term requests can pay off in terms of long-term company productivity,” Ms. Sutton said.

Supervisors should also acknowledge the additional work that co-workers may be shouldering during their co-worker’s absence, she noted.

Loss of a Colleague

When a co-worker dies, people on the job may have an especially hard time. As soon as a supervisor becomes aware that a staff member has died, he or she should call a meeting to alert the other employees, Ms. Sutton said. They should be made aware of the funeral arrangements and given time to attend. One person should be designated as the contact person with the family of the deceased.

Employees may have a hard time seeing their co-worker’s empty place at work. Ms. Sutton suggested that, if possible, the workplace should be rearranged. “Even small changes might be helpful,” she said. “The goal is to lessen the impact on survivors, eliminating the presence of the empty chair without sacrificing the dignity of the life that was lost.”

The area where the person worked may need to be cleared out and reassigned. “Whoever has to accomplish this task will probably find it awkward and distressing. It may be helpful to assign this responsibility to two employees to do together,” she said.

Ms. Sutton emphasized that grief is a normal reaction when someone has lost a loved one and that there are no set time frames for grieving. “Each person responds differently,” she said. “When somebody is grieving, it is normal to have many different feelings: sadness, anger, guilt, panic, loneliness, fatigue, relief, or sometimes nothing. Often people can experience several of these at once, which can be confusing and add to a person’s feeling of loss of control.”

Normally gregarious people can find themselves withdrawing, or someone may feel overcome with unexplainable emotion, she said. The powerbroker can find himself bursting into tears for seemingly no reason or flailing his fists in uncontrolled rage when the wrong food arrives on the table during the business lunch.

When individuals find themselves having spontaneous emotional outbursts, it can be a sign that they are not allowing themselves to express the full range of feelings that are a normal part of any grief journey.

If a supervisor sees that an employee is suffering from extreme grief or is having violent or explosive outbursts, he or she should consider recommending that the person seek appropriate help, she said.

Talking to bereaved relatives can be difficult, Ms. Sutton noted. For most people, initiating a conversation with a person who is mourning is an intimidating task and one that many seek to avoid.

Being honest and authentic is a good approach, Ms. Sutton said. But the bereaved person is the one who should be doing most of the talking. “This could be achieved by asking open-ended questions such as, how are you really doing?” she said. “Talk from the same physical level, orient your body to them. Make as much eye contact as the person is comfortable with. Avoid giving advice or suggestions, and do not interrupt.”

Ms. Sutton said the point is not to take the grieving person’s pain away. “What grieving people are looking for is an acknowledgment of their experience and to be listened to while they tell and retell their story.”

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