Loss is inevitable for all of us and, for working adults, the impact of loss can carry into the workplace. HR leaders are a key source of support and resources for managing bereavement in the workplace.

We shared five steps that employers can take to provide a culture of support for employees who have experienced a loss. But, the impacts of such losses don't simply go away once an employee is back in the office. Once back on the job, employees can still suffer from emotional distress that can impact their performance. Finding the right balance between supporting the needs of the impacted employee and ensuring the productivity of the workplace is a critical role for HR. What opportunities exist for HR in terms of managing bereavement in the workplace?

Balancing Business With Compassion

Nick Arquette is the founder of Walk With Sally, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides mentorship and support programs for children whose families have been impacted by cancer. "The grieving process is something that is so subjective and it manifests differently for everyone, which means there really is no right or wrong timeline," Arquette says. In fact, the best thing employers and their HR representatives can likely do to help employees ease back into the workplace is to treat each case as its own. "Take the time to connect personally with the employee to better understand their needs and get a feel for a timeline," he says.

From a practical standpoint, Arquette notes, businesses need to be focused on their operations, which means there may be a need to delegate some of the employee's tasks or responsibilities to others during the transition and healing process. There's an important emotional component, as well. "Things will never be 'normal' for this person again, but the last thing you want to do is create any additional pressure to return to work by a certain time," he says. "That may only lead to poor performance and resentment in the end."

Tips for Supporting Employees

Laura Handrick, HR analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com, points out that HR leaders can support employee bereavement in a variety of ways, including:

  • Offering the employee more time off, if available. "Consider allowing paid or unpaid time off as your company policy dictates," she suggests. "Many employees have to manage family affairs after the death of a loved one — often out of state — and need additional time to do so."
  • Provide employees with information on an EAP program, if the company has one.
  • Suggest the employees consider using their medical benefits or mental health counseling services to obtain outside support.
  • Take note of local services, like bereavement groups, that may be available to the employee.
  • Provide coaching and training to supervisors to help them recognize stress in an employee dealing with a loss. Educate supervisors on available resources.

While it's important for HR to ensure that both an impacted employee and their supervisor is aware of resources available, Handrick cautions that "HR needs to be careful it does not fall into the position of being the personal 'bereavement counselor' to the affected employee." In addition to bereavement leave, having additional benefits in place such as EAP, medical benefits, supervisory training and local resources can help support employees while maintaining productivity.

Be Mindful of Legal Implications

There are also legal implications that HR should be aware of, says Nannina Angioni, a labor and employment attorney and partner at Los Angeles-based law firm Kaedian LLP. "If an employee's distress following a death is so heightened that it causes the employee to experience something akin to temporary disability, HR must be mindful of the company's legal obligations," says Angioni. It's important, she says, for the company to engage with the employee to identify whether some form of temporary, reasonable accommodation is needed. "If the employee is so distressed that they must take medication to cope and that medication makes it unsafe for the employee to drive at certain hours, the employer should explore adjusting the employee's schedule to accommodate the temporary disability," she says.

Lawsuits often arise, says Angioni, not because of a specific event, but because of the way an employer made an employee feel. Taking a proactive approach can help minimize this potential. "In most instances, some small, mindful and compassionate steps in the short term can make all the difference," she says.

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Tags: Retention Employee Engagement