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How to Navigate Grief at Work

Whether you’re an employer or an employee, it’s important to have a plan

Earlier this year, I received a phone call at work from my mom letting me know that my grandpa had died. I wasn’t sure how to behave, because no one ever talks about how to handle grief and loss in a professional environment. I managed, at least, to have the wherewithal to inform my boss that I had a family emergency before leaving. The following day, I further explained to my boss via Slack what had happened, and without hesitation, he told me to take as much time as I needed.

According to the law, however, he didn’t have to offer me anything.

Currently, there are no federal laws that require employers to offer paid or unpaid leave for employees’ bereavement. In fact, Oregon is the only state that passed a law requiring employers with 25 or more employees to provide bereavement leave. “Under the law, which took effect in January 2014, employees are allowed to take up to two weeks of bereavement leave for each family member that passes,” says Amanda Augustine, a career advice expert for TopResume. “While the District of Columbia and the other 49 states don’t require employers to give their employees time off to grieve, many companies opted to establish bereavement-leave policies for their organizations.”

Augustine says that while this benefit may not be part of the sales-pitch prospective candidates receive during the interview process, it sends the message to employees that the company understands the toll a family death can take on a person, and the need to take some time off to deal with the grief.

So if you’re an employer, what’s a respectful amount of bereavement time to give your employee?
While it’s certainly difficult to quantify another person’s grief, Augustine says that, outside of Oregon, the general rule of thumb is to provide three to five days of paid time off with the ability to offer more time, depending on the circumstances. “For example, in cases where the employee has extended personal or business responsibilities associated with the death (e.g., serving as the executor of the estate), the company may allow the employee to take a 30-day paid or unpaid leave of absence in the form of vacation or personal days,” says Augustine.

On the flip side, what’s the best way to talk to your manager about taking time off to grieve?
According to this article in Forbes, if your loved one has suddenly passed, contact your immediate supervisor or your HR department to give them whatever details you know at that point. Augustine agrees, adding that while technically the company reserves the right to request documentation as proof of the death, such as an obituary, ordinarily the company won’t require you to provide written proof. “Don’t feel compelled to delve into details surrounding your family member’s death; only share what you feel comfortable divulging based on your feelings and your relationship with your boss or HR representatives,” says Augustine.

Additionally, if you need more time off than the company allows, reach out to your manager if you feel comfortable doing so and request additional time. “Remember, you can always use your vacation days and other PTO days to extend your bereavement leave beyond the company’s policies,” Augustine tells me.

But what about all the other, really awkward parts of the entire work-grief experience? Like when you have to come back to work and you’re either still in a bad place emotionally, or just not ready to answer questions from well-meaning colleagues?
According to the same article in Forbes, it’s best to go back to the office on a Thursday or Friday to have a shortened work week which will help you ease back into the flow of things. Additionally, if you’re the mourner, you should decide how you’d like your coworkers to handle things before going back to work. “Whether in person, by email or through an intermediary, thank coworkers if they came to the funeral or sent flowers or food, and then state your wishes,” reports Forbes. “If it’s too hard for you to state your needs out loud in person, see if you feel comfortable with [Sheryl] Sandberg’s method of using social media to explain what her needs are right now.” (After the passing of her husband, Sandberg—the COO of Facebook—wrote about the sudden death of her husband and dealing with her grief in a Facebook post.)

Perhaps even more uncomfortable than being the mourner coming back to the office, however, is welcoming a mourner in a way that comes across as heartfelt without feeling disingenuous. To that end, the most important thing to keep in mind when offering condolences is to make sure you do so privately. “Wait until the person is alone to approach them and express your sentiments,” says Augustine. “Blurting out these sentiments while you’re passing one another in the hallway can come off as insincere and send the person into a bad place, depending on how they’re handling the loss.”

In addition, ask what you can do to help. “While you might not be able to help them process the death of their loved one, you can help them get back into the swing of things at work,” says Augustine. “This could be as simple as offering to update them on a project you’re both working on over lunch or helping the person catch up on paperwork.”

If you don’t know the co-worker well, consider getting a card and having other colleagues sign it, so it’s waiting on the person’s desk when they return to work. Put another way, use your best judgement and just be a decent person.

Oh, and whatever you do, don’t assume the role of grief counselor, or invent sad stories in solidarity.