Working Through Grief: How to Build a Supportive Workplace

Borrowing from her own experience of losing her husband from cancer, the author presents five strategies to help employees work through grief.

Working Through Grief: How to Build a Supportive Workplace
11 mins read

I was recently updating our Employee Handbook with a very experienced HR professional. When we came to the bereavement leave section, she suggested providing three days of paid leave.

I pushed back, saying that in my Jewish tradition, someone who has just lost a close relative—such as a parent, sibling, spouse, or child—needs at least seven days off, during a time known as shivah.

Unfortunately, I knew this personally. My husband of 33 years died of pancreatic cancer earlier this year. When I returned to work after the seven–day shivah period, I found myself in “widow’s fog”: I easily tired, and it was hard for me to feel much empathy for anyone else. If someone came to me with a work-related problem, I said to myself, “What’s she complaining about?” I thought, “At least she didn’t just lose her husband.”

But I know that I am not alone in my grief.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, there’s been tremendous loss of life in the United States, either directly from the virus (with more than 1 million deaths and climbing) or second-handedly related to the pandemic (via delays in receiving preventive tests or treatments, for example). Tragically, there’s also been an increase in suicides from younger people, with mental illnesses surging among teens and young adults. To be human is to be mortal, yet with that inevitability also comes denial. Like Bruno, we just don’t talk about it, especially at work.

And for those of us who work in nonprofits, it is often difficult to provide extended time off for our employees given our small workforces and strained budgets. However, as leaders, we need to recognize the delicate balance between the ongoing needs of the workplace and the many needs of the grieving employee. How can nonprofit managers be empathetic and responsive to employees who are dealing with loss (which might manifest in hospitalizations, hospice, death, and/or post-death sorrow) while also ensuring that the agency’s mission stays on course?

As a recent widow and founding Executive Director of a small nonprofit, I found myself looking through both of these different lenses almost simultaneously.

Unlike many, I was also fortunate to be surrounded by both personal friends and a strong nonprofit community. Throughout my husband’s chemo treatments, and especially during hospice, there was an outpouring of care and kindness. Colleagues took on double duty to get my work done. Board members attended the funeral and later shivah services. Some of our clients even sent condolence cards, and former colleagues made donations in his name.

But even though I had strong community support, I was still worried about fundraising, operational issues, and generally keeping our young nonprofit afloat. Plus, I was physically and emotionally drained, especially with all the paperwork and phone calls that accompany a spouse’s death. It was difficult for me to focus on the nuts and bolts of work when I was still in the midst of the bureaucratic aftermath of my husband’s death.

But again, my situation is not necessarily unique. Often, employers are sympathetic when a family death happens but also want the grieving employee to move on as soon as possible after bereavement leave. They expect the employee to return to their usual workload without having to process and take leave surrounding the recent loss.

These expectations are not only unrealistic, they are also potentially harmful. Two professors writing about grief in a management journal label this approach as management complicity in a “conspiracy of silence,” borrowing a term from Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist specializing in bereavement and the author of “Grief Works.” According to the professors, “It deprives people of the support that work could offer in times of mourning, erodes collegial bonds, and drains working lives and workplaces of meaning.”

Conspiracy or not, the whole premise of moving on after a death is fundamentally flawed to begin with. Grief, as Sigmund Freud first noted in his seminal paper “Mourning and Melancholia,” is work, but we are not in control of it. That is, we can’t work on grief. Rather, grief works on us. At best—and with support—we can work through it.

Based on my personal experience and research, I thought I would put together a few actionable strategies that might help nonprofit managers and colleagues respond in a caring (yet professional) manner to grieving employees. Here are five I found to be the most salient, ranked from the more official and formal to the more personal and informal.

1. Offer Flexibility

Your employee needs flexibility when a family member is ill. This could mean flexible working hours, more remote work, or even a temporary change of assignments. Employees might also need to use paid time off in small increments as well as possibly family leave.

For example, soon after my husband was diagnosed with cancer, it became clear that I would need to drive him to doctor appointments and chemo as well as take on more family responsibilities during the workweek. Working from home during the pandemic helped enormously to provide the flexibility I needed to work around my additional at-home responsibilities. I could hold a virtual staff meeting and then bring my husband a snack, even making sure he was taking breaks from his own work.

However, I knew I was not the only person who could benefit from such flexibility. So, when our office re-opened, I used my own experience to help inform our decision not to require employees to come back to the office.

2. Pay for Bereavement Leave and Offer Advances for Unexpected Costs

Whether it is the standard three days or more, all new employees should know that they can take paid time off when a close family member is dying or has died. No one should have to choose between being paid and being with their family at such a crucial time. (For our readers in California, be sure to read about the state’s new law covering bereavement leave benefits.)

It is also important to realize there may be unanticipated costs. Your employee might be required to chip in to pay for the funeral, purchase airline or hotel tickets, and even accrue additional childcare costs. Again, your employee should not be forced to choose between attending their loved one’s funeral and paying rent, for example. Especially considering the nonprofit world does not pay their employees as well as their for-profit peers, it might be necessary to offer some sort of advance payment system for grieving employees.

3. Engage in the Humanity of Professionalism

Essentially, this means recognizing the shared humanity between employees and employers. However, it also means recognizing that there’s an inherent power differential; as such, you must be careful not to overstep boundaries.

That is, having one-to-one check-ins is important, especially ones in which the griever can have open and honest conversations about the impending loss or post-death issues. However, people also must recognize that grief tends to come in waves. It can be triggered by something unexpected like a song, a hat, even a smell. Mourners need and want their grief to be acknowledged, but this can look different for each person. Make sure you check-in with the individual to find out from them what they need and how you can best support them in this process.

4. Don’t Play Therapist

When an employee shares deep and personal worries about a family member with serious illness or in hospice, it can be tempting to offer some personal advice. However, it’s not the job of managers to provide in-depth grief therapeutic counseling, which should be done by trained and licensed professionals. Empathy is a wonderful trait, but sometimes grief can escalate into a full-blown mental health crisis. Perhaps you might gently encourage grieving employees to seek therapeutic counseling from a licensed professional while providing resources to make this as easy as possible.

Hopefully, mental health services are covered by the work-provided health insurance. If not, there are also public mental health resources in every county. Access to mental health support should be easily available and encouraged if appropriate, even if it means missing a staff meeting or special event. You might even allow time off during the workday to go to therapy, presumably in the afternoon so the grieving employee does not have to return to work feeling emotionally drained.

5. Respect and Care for Employees

Above all, treat grieving employees with respect and caring as human beings who are in deep pain. To show respect and care, author Sheryl Sandburg offers the following pieces of advice:

  • Don’t avoid the heartbroken (except when they obviously want to be left alone).
  • Don’t tell them that every­thing will be okay because, well, how would you know?
  • And don’t ask the bereaved how they are in general. Instead ask, “How are you doing today?”

Prepare for the Inevitable

Author Adam Ehrlich Sachs writes, “Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives.” As we all move forward into yet another winter of pandemic uncertainty, we must focus on creating an organizational culture that is prepared for inevitable grief.

This preparation should contribute to overall employee wellbeing and make your employees feel a sense of belonging and community in your organization. Employees should know their nonprofit cares about employees as people instead of feeling like some productivity automatons. Humans are not computers, and employers have an emotional responsibility to foster their employees’ wellbeing. We are only strong if all of us are strong together.

About the Author

Founding Executive Director at | More Posts

Michelle K Wolf is the Founding Executive Director of JLA Trust, a nonprofit based in LA County for that provides affordable special needs trustee services for persons with disabilities, which now has 188 enrolled beneficiaries and over $11 million in pooled assets. Pooled trusts are an easy way for people with disabilities to have professional trustee services to legally supplement their government means-tested benefits.

She was formerly the Director of Serving the Vulnerable for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and in 2005, she co-founded HaMercaz, an innovative multi-agency collaborative one-stop model that helps families raising children with special needs. She is also a former Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work on Grant Writing for Social Workers.

As a parent of an adult son with cerebral palsy, she writes on topics related to intellectual/developmental disabilities and she is also a member of the Self-Determination Advisory Committee for the Lanterman Regional Center.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

4 thoughts on “Working Through Grief: How to Build a Supportive Workplace

  1. This is valuable. From 35 years as an Executive Director of a community based, free standing hospice in which I gave numerous community educational presentations on death, dying, grief, loss and bereavement, the single most supportive thing you can do, as an employer, colleague or friend, is to ask, “What do you need and how best can we support you?”. Then have the policies and organizational culture in place to follow through.

    I applaud Blue Avocado for the excellent resource you are to nonprofit world.

  2. My mother has dementia which became ever more evident as I finished a 30 year career at a very local non profit for older adult residents. Speaking of the Jewish culture, on the day that Yom Kippur, the holiest of days was to begin at Sunset, I became life-threatening ill, the result of the caregiving and stress that accumulated over time. I had what is known as a dissection of the aorta and no doubt would have died as it is usually fatal, but I was in the right place…we live in Cleveland and so I was taken via helicopter, unaware of how critical I was. I had been until then in good health so had a bank of sick leave to cover my recuperation, as well I was working remotely. I ultimately retired sooner than I otherwise would have to be available even in a more limited way to caregive for mom and look out for her and my dad as well. Mom is now 100, and dad passed a couple weeks ago at 105. So I can very much relate to the overload of paperwork and details, and how 3 days is grossly inadequate leave time. I suspect those who write the policies or pass on the tradition of that, have never experienced loss or grief. It IS exhausting. It DOES impact functioning. And there IS a ripple effect…for instance many family members no longer live in the same town. So for us my sister came in and we had to have the funeral probably a day sooner than we would have which resulted in our having to tolerate the inept funeral director who did not choose to follow our directions to run the notice in a particular paper on the next day. …My sister needed her income and so had to rush home, leaving me, as usual to deal with the issues left to be dealt with. The family and medical leave act benefits the wealthy among us, not those who struggle to make ends meet. Perhaps bereavement leave needs to be mandated.

  3. Michelle, first of all, I am so sorry for your loss. This was a timely and thoughtful article about an issue that most people try to void in the workplace and in life.

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