Following the loss of a loved one, returning to the workplace can be an intimidating experience. However, for most the return to work will prove to be beneficial as it provides structure for a daily routine and a place to go each day.
Unfortunately, the timing of the return to work is most likely dictated by bereavement leave policies, income requirements and the fear of losing a job rather than the griever’s readiness to return to work. If the return to work follows an extended absence or a traumatic loss, the manager should meet with the employee outside of the workplace prior to his/her return. This will allow the grieving employee to come up to speed on current projects and learn of any changes to priorities while the employee was on leave. Most importantly, the meeting will provide the opportunity for interaction between the employee and manager, easing the pending interaction with co-workers. In addition, having the meeting prior to the return will allow the grieving employee to digest the updates without feeling overwhelmed. On the first day of returning to work, the grieving employee may attempt to maintain a strong emotional front, seeing many co-workers for the first time since the death and facing a workload that has fallen behind. This advance meeting will help ease some of that stress.
The first day will likely be the worst, but the anticipation of the return is often harder than the return itself. Co-workers may have a tendency to hover when they are at a loss of how to behave or what to say. In fact, many co-workers may avoid any interaction being at a loss for saying what is appropriate. To alleviate the awkwardness of the first day, co-workers may consider stopping by the grieving employee’s house during the bereavement leave or at least acknowledge the death with a phone call, email, card or bereavement gift. This approach provides a platform for the initial interaction, as the griever will have the opportunity to thank the co-worker for the gracious gesture, creating a starting point for a conversation.
Be particularly cautious about labeling or joking about the grieving employee or the death. A grieving employee may be forever labeled as “the one whose child was hit by a car.” Or a story may be told weeks, months or years after the death about an employee, while a close family member or friend of the deceased may be in proximity of the conversation. For instance, a thirty-two-year-old employee had died of a heart attack in an office parking lot. In subsequent years, both the widow and friends of the deceased employee heard stories that he had worked too hard and that current employees were cautioned, as they could be next.
Below are suggestions that will support a grieving employee’s return to work:
- Reach out to the griever before the return by sending a card or email to the employee letting them know you are thinking about them.
- Welcome him/her back (short and sweet), without making a big deal of the return yet helping them to feel welcome upon their return.
- Provide a welcome back gift from the workgroup – possibly a nice plant on his/her desk
- Interact with the returning employee socially in the workplace and with work obligations. Often co-workers distance themselves to avoid the discomfort of the situation. Be aware that the transition may take time and needs co-workers’ patience.
- Be sure not to compare any personal losses with the returning employee as all employees experience losses differently.
Most grieving individuals fake it well and may not appear on the surface that they are grieving – but they are. A person will generally continue to move forward in their grief journey with an occasional setback; and with a little help s/he will move forward again. The more supportive the management team and co-workers are upon the return to the workplace, the sooner the employee will gain strength and confidence.
Rachel Kodanaz is an author, speaker and consultant who provides support to workplaces when there has been a death of an employee or when an employee has experienced a personal loss. She is the author of Grief in the Workplace Management Handbook and Living with Loss, One Day at a Time. Both are available on www.rachelkodanaz.com.