Three tips for supporting employees in tough times

By Amy Florian

Grief support in the workplace is becoming increasingly important.
Grief support in the workplace is becoming increasingly important.

Our workplace is aging. With about 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day in the U.S. and more seniors opting to stay employed, you are probably dealing with serious illness and deaths among employees and their families on a regular basis.

The desire for communication on a more personal level is especially strong in times of transition, crisis and death. So while employees may appreciate your skills in advising them on retirement options, they are now also looking for someone who “gets them” and knows how to support them in their grief.

It is becoming increasingly important to understand the basics of grief support in the workplace. Those who don’t know how to talk about grief may experience a loss of trust and confidence from their colleagues.

Just a few tips to help you:

Even if you have had a similar grief experience, do not say “I know how you feel” or “I understand just what you’re going through.” If you don’t want to alienate grieving colleagues, avoid telling them you know how they feel, because you are always wrong. Each person experiences grief uniquely, based on a host of factors, including their specific relationship with the person who died, their personality and style of grieving, their prior experience of loss, the strength of their support network and their culture.

Instead, use the phrase “How is it different?” For instance: “When my husband died, I felt like I was walking around in a fog for five months. Is it like that for you, or how is it different?” Or, “When my mom died, I kept picking up the phone to call her before I remembered there wouldn’t be an answer on the other side. Have you done that too, or how is it different for you?” In other words, you establish your expertise and yet allow for your colleague’s unique experience.

Avoid saying “Come by my office any time.” First, everyone says that, but few people actually mean that the grieving person can call or see them any time. More importantly, grieving people don’t have the energy and resilience to simply stop by and talk. It seems too risky and they are feeling too vulnerable to interrupt someone else’s normal day to ask for something.

Instead, every time you communicate with grieving colleagues, tell them the next time that you will contact them. “I’ll call you next Tuesday, just to check in on how it’s going and see if you have any questions.” That takes the weight entirely off their shoulders and positions you as one of the rare people who are there for them without them having to give it a second thought.

Implement these approaches to distinguish your workplace and build a more trusting relationship with your colleagues. Remember, when you effectively serve others in the toughest times of their lives, it’s good for them, good for you, and it just happens to also be very good for your workplace.

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