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Grief is a universal human experience: How Managers Can Help Grieving Workers

A man crying

The void: Be present.

Acknowledging the loss without making demands is the best a manager can do. Let the griever take the lead. It is important at this stage to ignore the impulse to “fix” that drives most managerial actions. Death is unfixable. Instead, managers should be present and support employees by managing the boundary between them and the workplace.

A manager’s presence, through a phone call and, if welcome, a personal visit, goes a long way toward reassuring employees that they are valued and supported. Show that you recognize the loss they have experienced, and find out what they would like you to tell others at work.

There is no formula or agreed-upon recommendation for when to return to work. In recent years, Facebook and Mastercard have increased theirs to up to 20 days for the loss of an immediate family member. Companies might consider leave-sharing schemes that allow employees to donate vacation time to those in need. These policies are common at many organizations, including Accenture, the National Institutes of Health, and a number of smaller firms. Having clear and generous policies in place, Laszlo Bock told us, also ensures that managers are not given too much discretion, which might have the effect of favoring employees with more-senior roles, longer tenures, or more personal connections in the office. But ultimately, patience and support are what make the difference.

The absence: Be patient.

Most workers resume work after a few days or weeks. But grief typically remains intense for months, and as we noted earlier, it can flare up years later. So even when the return to work has been handled sensitively, managers can’t assume that everything will go back to business as usual. The person in mourning will continue to be in the grip of intense confusion, exhaustion, and pain.

Since ambivalence is not always conscious, let alone easy to express, it often manifests as inconsistency.

This inconsistency can be confusing and irritating, not least for the grief-stricken. Alongside the absence of their loved ones, they often begin to notice their own absence.

It is usually a relief to people who are grieving to realize that their managers hold them in the same regard as before but will not have the same expectations for some time. It might even help them accept that while they can’t go back to “who they were before,” they can be as talented and dedicated after the loss. Institutionally, the policies that help in this phase are those that offer flexibility. Managers might assign people to tasks that are more likely to reinforce their agency or that support their need to tend to other parts of their lives. Managers might allow remote working or flexible work hours for a period, offering an extension of an up-or-out evaluation along with regular reviews to discuss how the employee is coping and whether further accommodation is needed. Flexibility helps people benefit from the structure of returning to work without being overwhelmed. If an employee continues to struggle several months after a loss, a manager might gently suggest that he or she could benefit from consulting a professional.

The new beginning: Be open.

Plenty of studies and stories document the generative effects of confronting mortality over time with the patient and steady support and caring of others. Referred to as “post-traumatic growth,” these effects include a newfound appreciation of life, a more resilient hope, deeper connections with others, and a resolve to make the most of what one has. Post-traumatic growth does not replace the devastating feelings of loss or the need to grieve. Rather, it reinforces the realization that one has survived and that life is worth living. Whether it involves being more authentic and focused in one’s work, writing a book to break the taboo surrounding loss, or spending more time with family, such growth does not mean forgetting or returning to what was. It involves living fully with the loss.

It may also be helpful for managers to speak about their own experience of loss. Even if you haven’t yet been touched by bereavement, you are likely to have endured painful struggles and can draw on those.

The three capacities we have described above—to be present in moments of loss, patient with the inconsistency it generates, and open to its growth potential—are not just ways in which you can help mourning employees. They also complement the vision, planning, and guidance that we traditionally expect from managers. In confronting grief, managers help organizations do better. They also develop into leaders who can fulfill their companies’ promise to bring out the best in their workers.


A version of this article appeared in the July–August 2019 issue (pp.116–123) of Harvard Business Review.


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