How to Deal with Grief at Work – for Leaders

In life, really bad stuff happens. Really really bad. At some stage of life to every single one of us. People we love die, we get cancer or other serious illnesses, people we love get seriously ill, or our most important relationships break down.

There is no more important time to be a manager, and there is no other time when you feel like you have no clue what to do. After all, when the really serious stuff happens, you cannot fix it.

What you can do is care.

Here’s the basics you ought to know –

  1. There is no ‘grief process’ applicable to every situation
  2. Grief is not linear – People don’t go through and arrive back at ‘normal’
  3. Grief doesn’t happen ‘on time’ efficiently – it can months, years, and be triggered unexpectedly by seemingly unrelated things at odd times
  4. Every person and situation is different
  5. Grief manifests itself in a wide variety of ways – social withdrawal, anger, sadness, fear, crying, confusion, an overwhelming inability to cope.

The bottom line is that is our well-being is severely compromised. That impacts our ability to work well at work.

All of this makes grief, and specifically grief at work, really tricky to deal with.

As a leader, there are three things you can absolutely do –

  1. Show up and be there
  2. Care
  3. Make work OK

And four extra things that really good leaders do –

  1. They make no assumptions
  2. They set a sustainable role
  3. They put longer term networked support in place
  4. They check in personally and quietly


© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human

Because grief and bereavement are part of life, they are also part of work. In fact, they’re more common than anyone imagines, or remembers. Yet, there’s little written around the topic.

Understanding grief is about responding to the person and caring.

This is the first three things to get right –

  1. Show up and be there
  2. Care
  3. Make work OK

Then there’s one big mistake to avoid.

And finally, there’s four extra things that really good leaders do –

  1. Make no assumptions
  2. Set a sustainable role
  3. Put longer term networked support in place
  4. Check in personally and quietly

Here’s some details on each aspect.

How to ‘Show up and be there’

As a manager, as soon as you hear news, do something but don’t do everything. Most people have families and friends, even close colleagues, who will be there for them.

If you’re really close to the person, you’ll know what to do. Dropping over or calling is a good place to start.  If you’re close but not really close, remember you’re the work boss, nothing more, and play that role really well. A card dropped at their home saying something simple like;

Dear Sam,

Heard your news and wanted you to know I’m thinking of you.

If there’s anything I can do, please call me (insert your number). Otherwise, I’ll give you a little bit of space with your family this week, and call in next week. I’ll call first.

With love,

Your name

That’s it. They know you’re there, but not intruding. Then diarise to drop in, calling first as promised. The other really worthwhile thing to do, is to contact their next of kin and drop them a note too. Something like –

Dear Sam’s daughter/son/sister/mum/dad,

Just letting you know that we’re thinking of you and your family at the moment. I’ve sent a note to your Mum/Dad/sister/brother, but I’m sure you’re playing a big role looking after them at the moment. Please know that you can call me, or any of the team, if we can offer any help during this difficult time.


You name”

And that matters too. Now, the family knows that the person they love is cared about at work, by the boss, and that they can contact you for any questions or concerns that might come up.   


Caring matters. It matters most when people need care.

When really serious bad stuff happens, the whole team often needs some care and attention, not just the person suffering the loss.

So, you send your note to the person, and follow up as promised. You let them know you’re there and you’re not absent. You’ve sent a note to next of kin and you’ve opened up that path too. They know you’re there. 

Now you reach out to the team too. You’ve probably had a meeting to let everyone know the news. You should have scheduled this around a time that people didn’t have to rush back to work, but could stay and just be with each other for a little bit of time. And you’ve stayed present and available to the team for a little afterwards. You’ve made sure you’re there to hear anything people are saying or needing.

Next step is to get the team back together. If you’re a big organisation you can call in the EAP (Employee Assistance Program) counsellors. If you’re small, you need to handle this well yourself. Call an afternoon tea meeting. Simple and nothing too scripted. You need to be updating them on how their colleague is going because they’ll be concerned and care. You also need to find a nice way to ask if they know anything more, as this will save the bereaved person having to tell everyone the same story. What you’re doing is making sure as a workplace, whatever information you have from the person, is in your hands to ensure you have the best possible chance of supporting the person as well as you can.

You need to be saying things like “This is a really sad time, and I know you all know Sam well and are really sad for her/him. I wanted to update you on everything I know. I’ve spoken to Sam’s sister today, and he/she’s doing OK. She’s taking the next two weeks off and then at this stage, they want to come back. Over the next few weeks, we’ll have to stay close and make sure we make work a really good safe place for Sam to come back to when he/she is ready. Like an island in a really tough spot in her/his life”.

You also need to walk over and talk to the person’s closest work friends. They’ll be doing toughest, plus they’ll have more contact. They’re often your bridge to supporting the person, particularly when you’re not personally close to the person yourself.

Make Work OK

This is THE most important thing you can do – Make work OK when everything else is not.

Luckily, it’s also one of the things you have most control over.

So, let’s think about this – Something has gone really bad. I’m distraught and overwhelmed by the situation. My mental and physical well-being is severely impacted. Despite all that, two things are true. Firstly, financially, I’ll need to come back to work. Secondly, I can’t stay at home forever without life getting a whole lot worse than it already is. In short, “work” may be part of the solution not part of the problem. Maybe not immediately, but certainly in the not too distant future. 

And that’s the best way to think about work – Making it an island in a sea of sad and bad.

You need to make work available right from the start. As soon as you’re talking to the person, after the initial conversation, you should make sure they know they’re welcome back at work anytime they’re ready.

This is a really delicate balance. You don’t want to smother them, not make them feel pressured or obligated to return too soon. You have find a way to let them know that you believe they’re a great employee and you have your support. That you get that everything is not ‘normal’ right now, and that they might not be instantly efficient and productive or awesome at customer service, but they might be too, and either is OK by you. Sometimes people work through “numb” as an awesome employee – incredibly efficient and productive.

Next, you need them to have a buddy at work. Someone who is looking out for them and keeping an eye on how they’re going. Taking them for an extra coffee or a longer lunch or even dropping them home a little early on a tough day. It doesn’t need to be a scheduled short day or short week, it needs to flexible to how they’re travelling. Assuming they’re going to be OK, but flexing when they’re not. Sending them home alone can be the worst thing you can do. Work may be the only thing they have in their life that is working well. Support a little slower productivity, compensate a little less customer service, but always ensure they know you believe they’re going to be OK. They have your support. “Work” is there, its supportive of the need to grieve, but equally, it’s confident and wants them back as part of the team as soon as they’re ready.

And the other super important part of work being OK, is allowing the rest of the team to be part of the support crew. Work with people, meet with them, prior to the return of the person who is grieving. Let them know you’re supportive. Let them know that you know that work is not going to be the priority right now, and even if they return that productivity is going to be down a bit and they may need a little help. Let them know, some days might be tough. People are almost always kind and want to help. They’ll lean towards the person and help. And they’ll know how their workplace treats really sad situations. They’ll appreciate they work somewhere kind and understanding.

The biggest mistake to avoid

The biggest mistake leaders make dealing with an employee with grief, they usually make with good intent. They want to care for the person, so they think ‘stay away as long as you like’ is the right answer. The problem with that approach is that you’re still running on an assumption that they’re not OK, and you’re enabling and supporting them to abdicate work or even life.

There are so many stories of people saying “as long as you like/need” and then three months later trying to get the person back to work, only to discover “work” is no longer on the agenda. Even if people need a little longer, “forever” is not the option. No matter how big the tragedy, most people will need to work again, and will want to work again as soon as they can. It’s better to say “Two weeks and then I’ll call”, or “Six weeks is absolutely fine – take your time – and then we’re really looking forward to having you back”.

The other version of this mistake is to lessen the job – the hours, the work, the responsibility. Again, reasonable for a short period, but unsustainable in the long term, so don’t set that expectation, and then end up in a battle. There’s nothing worse than “work” becoming the enemy for a sad person. There are so many examples of work becoming the enemy for someone dealing with trauma or grief. For example, “I was going through a terrible time supporting my husband through his cancer treatment, and work wouldn’t let me work a day a week”. You can support flexibility and irregularity. You can’t sustain extreme versions of changes to work without making it miserable for everyone else.

A summary of the mistake to avoid is don’t set up an unsustainable situation, and then be unable to support it being sustained. Be predictably supportive and caring, but also be clear on looking forward to their return.

Once you’ve got the basics right – Being there, Caring and Making work OK – and you’ve avoided the big mistake, then you can add some extra pieces.

Leaders who have led people well for a long time, also learn these things by experience.

  1. Make no assumptions
  2. Set a sustainable role
  3. Put longer term networked support in place
  4. Check in personally and quietly

Here’s the detail on these –

No Assumptions

Grief is unique.

The worst thing people do during grief is make a whole bunch of assumptions. They assume they know how people feel, they assume what is helpful to people, and assume they know what people want from work. They don’t. Everyone is different. Make no assumptions, and instead ask for what’s helpful.

The best thing a leader can do is to ask what might be helpful to the person. The individual themselves is the best source of information on what’s helpful, and it changes, so ask often. Ask what is most helpful, and offer things that are do’able. “Would you like me to tell the team?” is a good useful suggestion. “Would you like the team to come to the service” is another, and then make sure people know you support this.

Set sustainable roles

Some leaders thrive on the high drama of the moments – It’s how they lead. Serious situations bring this out in them and they leap in. Sometimes going from “person at work” to almost joining the family, sending flowers and gifts, and holding weekly discussions with the team about the role they’re playing to support. This is firstly, disingenuous. Secondly, it will perceived (probably quite correctly) as narcissistic. (This ain’t about you. It’s about the person who has had the terrible event). And finally, it’s not sustainable. And there’s nothing worse than a boss who becomes a new instant best friend and then disappears completely a few weeks down the track.

The best approach is a sustainable supportive person in the corner. Got your back, but not in your face. Asking and listening, but not taking over. You’re not the parent, you’re the work manager. Be there but don’t be everywhere. You need to pick a level of support and presence you can sustain for at least a full year.

Sometimes, the best a boss can be is confident and supportive that the person is doing well, keeping the conversations about work and positive things, and leave the really emotional personal support to family and friends. 

Put longer term networked support in place

One way to best support someone is to put a network of sustainable support around the person. A buddy when they get back to work, close work colleagues checking in over the longer term. A phone call to the partner or sibling or child over the ensuing few weeks and months. Making sure the person has support and someone checking in without the boss constantly wandering over and making the event the whole focus of the relationships. Sometimes the boss talking about work, and other people supporting the event, is better than the boss only talking about the event.

One good way to do this could even be to diarise a few events. Like the anniversary of a death or the birthday of a lost child. Both of these dates might be traumatic for a person. Just mentioning to a close colleague, “Hey, I know this time of year is tough for Sam” is enough for people to be a little sensitive and more caring. 

They check in personally and quietly

Great managers also quietly check with. Not with the fanfare of letting people know how much they care, by announcing at a meeting, but by quietly dropping over to a person’s desk and simply asking “All OK? I know this is a tough time”, or “Don’t forget I’m here if I can be helpful” when you spot the opportunity when the person is alone and out of earshot from other. “You’re doing really well” when the person apologises for not keeping it altogether right now. Encouraging. Supportive. Genuinely caring. Quietly. And not about the glory of being the caring boss.

© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human

From a work perspective, there is no such thing as an expert in grief or an expert in supporting someone through grief, unless you’re a fully qualified grief counsellor, and even then, it’s never perfect. Each individual is different and you have to respond to their needs.

As a manger, the best thing you can be in this situation is well versed in the topic, and as ‘expert’, as much as you can be, in the person at the centre of the situation. Listen, ask, care, and support as best you can. Make sure they have other supports. Make sure work is OK, providing that island in the sea of sadness.

Here’s a couple of expert articles that really help understand grief at work, and how we might best support it. 

Grief at Work

Recovering from Grief

© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human

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