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How to help employees after a death in the workplace

  • Experiencing the death of a colleague has always been hard. Now, with so many employees working remotely and familiar ways of consoling each other unavailable, it feels even more difficult. More than 5 million Americans lost a loved one to Covid and are now going through the grief process. Though grief can significantly affect morale, mental health and job performance, human resources professionals can have a significant impact on how employees, and their organizations at large, recover.


    Minimizing grief makes it last longer

    Too often, employers want to minimize the tragedy or move on too soon. Without giving employees both the permission and the space to process their grief, the impact of the loss may last much longer. Painful as it is, there’s no way around grief—only through. Formally resetting employee expectations and workloads, for a time, may in the long-run allow everyone to heal and resume productivity sooner. 


    Leadership matters

    In any workplace situation, leaders set the tone. Grief is no different. Some leaders resist showing too much emotion at work, but in this case they must be intentional to set the tone and model how to grieve at work. Genuine sentiments expressed by a leader, provide comfort and guidance to employees.


    Talking it out

    Grief can feel like you’re in a tunnel all by yourself. As employees continue to work remotely, it’s easy to feel isolated. All levels of organizational leadership should encourage conversations about grief and set the tone that it’s “okay to not be okay.” Organizing virtual team meetings to reflect on recent loss and share memories, appointing a manager or HR team member to be a dedicated support person for those who were close with the deceased, or banding together to send the family a card or gift can all be positive, shared experiences after a loss. 


    Grief doesn’t follow a schedule

    Grief is not linear and will not follow our schedules, as much as we’d like it to. Grief support must continue long after the initial flurry of activity. Providing resources that support people over time, such as information about mental health benefits, support groups in the area, or employee assistance options are all necessary long-term supports.  Not everyone needs the support HR can offer, but they do need to know their organization cares about their well-being and supports them if they need it.


    Create closure to move on

    Familiar ways of consoling one another, such as traveling to attend an in-person funeral or hugging co-workers, are largely not available right now. Creating new rituals and ways to connect after the death of an employee is important. Companies are organizing virtual and hybrid memorial events that include virtual candle lighting ceremonies, toasts, word clouds, digital slideshows, and even virtual gardens on the screen. They are collecting donations for a charity or planting a tree to honor the co-worker. Though social distancing has changed how we celebrate a life, gathering together in-person or virtually before your office attempts to “move on” is an important step in the grieving process. 


    Noha Waibsnaider is the co-founder of GatheringUs, a company that brings communities together after the death of a loved one to support each other and celebrate together.  Noha has been recognized as a White House Champion of Change, Women Presidents Organization’s 50 Fastest, JWI Woman to Watch, Columbia Business School’s Distinguished Alumna, and received the Ecademy Award for Entrepreneurship. At GatheringUs, she has helped over 60,000 people celebrate the life of a loved one remotely and has advised many organizational leaders on grieving virtually. 

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