Americans are currently experiencing a “grief crisis”: more than 700,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, leaving an estimated 6.3 million people grieving a close family member.
Many of those grieving are women. The loss of a spouse, in particular, disproportionately affects women: as of 2020, an estimated 11 out of 15 million widowed persons are women.
Many companies have plans and routines to acknowledge big moments in their employees’ lives: new babies, marriages, and retirements, but few have detailed plans to help their employees through grief.
How you respond to a loss and provide for a grieving employee has long-term implications for your business. An employee will remember how they were treated after a loss, perhaps more than any other time during their employment. It is also estimated that grief costs companies up to $75 billion a year in lost productivity. Providing an environment for grieving workers to heal and process can help reduce productivity losses and underscore your company’s values.
Below are a few steps you can take to provide a supportive environment for employees dealing with grief.
Step 1: Acknowledge their loss
Most of us have experienced the anticipation of interacting with a grieving coworker. It can be difficult to know what to say: do you bring up their loss or is it better to ignore the topic to avoid upsetting them during work hours?
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, employers and coworkers should acknowledge their colleague’s loss and offer to talk if and when the person is ready. By opening the lines of communication, you leave space for the employee to set their own boundaries at work but avoid making them feel ignored or isolated.
Having a designated manager or human resources professional assigned to communicate with the employee can also ensure their plans for bereavement leave and wishes when returning to the office are communicated clearly and efficiently to the rest of their coworkers.
Step 2: Be flexible
Grief does not come with an end date. In the United States, however, the average paid bereavement leave offered to employees who have lost a spouse or child is just four days. As anyone who has lost a loved-one knows the expectation that a worker would be back to business as usual after a few days – even if they are back online or in the office – is not reasonable.
Beyond extending paid bereavement leave (which many companies, such as Facebook and Mastercard, have done in recent years), employers can offer flexibility by lessening workloads and hours, providing resources to help their workers get through challenging times, and showing compassion for the emotional, mental, and physical state of their employees.
Allowing employees to process grief on their timeline is crucial not only to their healing, but also to maintaining a productive and positive work environment. The Grief Recovery Institute estimates that 85 percent of workers have experienced a decline in their productivity and decision-making abilities because of grief.
When employers provide flexibility for their mourning employees, they acknowledge that grief never fully goes away and allow workers to bring their whole selves to work, whenever they are ready.
Step 3: Provide a variety of resources and personalized support
Grieving employees can benefit from a variety of resources, from emotional support and therapy to guidance about logistics and finances. While many companies have started providing mental health resources to employees, few offer benefits that specifically address the financial needs of recent widows.
The financial complications of losing a loved one – particularly when compounded by what some widows call “brain freeze” – can be overwhelming. The uncertainty and complexity of navigating financial issues while grieving can increase stress, leave widows vulnerable to poor financial advice, and exacerbate their grief.
The most useful guidance for widows who need help with the logistics and financial implications of their loss is catered to their specific situation. Every woman’s marriage, finances, knowledge, and mentality are different. Connecting your employees with a financial coach who can address their individual questions and needs is crucial to supporting them in their toughest moments.
Companies that provide access to personalized financial guidance for their employees to help them through times of grief and loss are both benefiting the employee’s wellbeing and increasing the likelihood they return to work a more complete version of themselves.