“As baby boomers age, ‘we are in for a death boom’” the Chicago Tribune recently proclaimed. The older you are, the more people you know who are dying. Since baby boomers are staying in the workforce longer than recent generations, that means there will be more grieving people in the workplace over the next few years — and more use of the company bereavement policy.
Business leaders may ask, “So what?” It sounds heartless, but the purpose of a for-profit company is to make money. It’s not a therapeutic community. What is the responsibility of employers or colleagues to respond when someone has suffered a personal loss?
Beyond the basic humanity of caring for the people around us, there is a good business case for providing a grieving employee with care and support. People who are in acute grief are unlikely to be highly effective at work. They suffer more physical ailments, their concentration is diminished, and they are more emotionally reactive. Responding in a manner which helps them to move through their grief will enable them to return to full productivity faster.
The research on employee engagement has shown that a key element of employee happiness is “My manager knows who I am as a person.” At a time of mourning, such acknowledgement is especially powerful. It builds employee loyalty and commitment.
So, what should managers do when one of their team members has lost a loved one? The first step is to provide adequate leave. According to the Tribune, 90 percent of employers provide paid bereavement leave, with three days for an immediate family member being the norm.
I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous! In three days, you haven’t even begun to grasp the reality that the person is dead. We would do better to listen to the wisdom of ancient Jewish tradition. When a person dies, the family buries him or her as soon as possible. Then, they sit together at home for seven days. It’s called “sitting shiva,” which literally means “sitting seven.” During that week, people visit them. They bring food and they talk about the person who has passed away. Usually there are religious services in the home, once or twice daily. The mourners are expected to do nothing except sit and talk and rest and let others take care of them.
I sat shiva for each of my parents. It was exhausting and meaningful. And at the end of the week, I was ready to get up, walk outside, and begin to return to my normal life. I’m not suggesting that everyone has to sit shiva — but what about giving everyone that week off to focus on their immediate grief and be with the people they care about the most?
When the person does returns to work, whether it’s after one day or one month, here are some suggestions for how managers and co-workers can help them move forward:
- Cut them some slack. They are likely to be more distractible, slow, and prone to make mistakes. Ease up on deadlines or provide collaborators to help them maintain the quality of their work.
- Ask about the person who died. Give them a chance to talk about their loss.
- Don’t focus on losses you have suffered. The focus should be on them, not you.
- Don’t be afraid of their emotions. It won’t hurt them or you if the tears come. Offer them a Kleenex and be quiet until they have regained their composure.
How soon can you expect someone to be back to full performance? I’d say give them a month, but be aware that it generally takes a full year for the grieving process to be complete. The first birthday, the first summer vacation, the first Mother’s Day, the first Christmas — all of these can be difficult milestones.
You don’t have to be a trained grief counselor. In fact, I think that’s an inappropriate expectation for a manager. But you do have to know how to provide an environment that will help your employees heal sooner rather than later. It’s good business — and it’s just good.