Whether you’re an employer or employee, it’s important to know how you can best support a colleague after they’ve said goodbye to a loved one. While death-related office chit-chat can feel awkward at times – and you might feel tempted to completely avoid the conversation – we’d recommend acknowledging what has happened from the get go. The longer you avoid the conversation, the more awkward things may become.
So here’s our complete guide to acknowledging and supporting your co-worker while they’re grieving. Choose the actions that feel comfortable to you (and relevant for the person and your working relationship with them), and remember to be gentle with your colleague when you approach the topic.
What to expect before they return to the workplace
If you work alongside another individual every day, chances are, you’ll have developed a close bond with them. You’ve likely solved problems together, overcome workplace hurdles, and had in-depth conversations about workplace #drama. You also probably spend more time with them than many of your friends and family members (38-hour work weeks aren’t super forgiving, hey?), so they’ll probably expect to hear from you when they’ve just lost a loved one.
We’d recommend sending your colleague a text message, card, email, or making a phone call if you feel comfortable doing so, to express your condolences and let them know you’re thinking of them. This is a great way to break the ice and reduce awkwardness, right from the start. It’ll also show them that you deeply care about them.
However, it is important to note that not everyone responds to grief or messages of condolences in the same way. Remove all expectations – don’t expect them to send you a lengthy text message reply, or to call you back if they missed your call – and be okay with however they respond to you. While some are happy to chat and share memories after the passing of a loved one, others might shut off from the world and need some time to themselves.
What to expect once they’ve returned to work
Unfortunately, many of us don’t have the luxury of only returning to work when we feel like it, which means that your co-worker might head back into the office while they’re still grieving.
It’s important to look out for them during this time (the first few weeks or months after their return to work); offering to help them out with tasks, making sure they know you’re there for them if they need a chat or some time out, and being patient with them if they take a little longer to complete projects they’re usually pretty speedy at. Grief can impair the way we think, behave and sleep, so expecting your colleague to be their usual self upon their return to the office will likely only lead to disappointment.
You might also notice that your co-worker appears forgetful, scattered, jumpy, grumpy or upset from time to time. Allow them to ride this wave, be patient with them and show them you’re there to support them through this period. Grief is an emotional rollercoaster; no two days (or minutes!) look the same.
What to say and do to support a grieving colleague
In the day-to-day
There are so many ways you can show a grieving colleague that you care. We’ve written a guide on what to say to someone who is grieving, here, but you can also take a little extra action to support your colleague behind the scenes. Consider chatting to your employer about reducing your co-worker’s workload or finding new ways to delegate some of their projects to ease the burden on them. It also might be worth prepping your team for delays in work completion, and showing them how they can take on a little extra work and exhibit patience even if things, at times, feel frustrating.
When they display grief
If you find your colleague exhibiting grief in the workplace, it can be kind to head over to them and offer them some time away from the office or desk.
- Ask them if they’d like to head outside for a short walk (either with you, or on their own).
- Chat to your employer about providing them with the option to head home early.
- Invite them on a tea or coffee break.
- Encourage them to take a little extra personal leave, if they have the ability to do so.
- Do something small that’ll make them smile – like buying them a muffin and coffee from a local cafe and leaving it on their desk, or writing them a note telling them you’re there if they need a chat.
What to do when a colleague’s grief and emotions impact the workplace
While being patient with your colleague while they ride the grief rollercoaster is important, there can also come a time where their emotions are negatively impacting the workplace as a whole.
If your co-worker is becoming increasingly difficult to work and reason with, they aren’t able to maintain focus or concentration in meetings months after they’ve farewelled their loved one, or they become angry over small issues, it’s important to chat to your employer. Their grief shouldn’t be impacting the workplace negatively at large, and they might need a little extra support while they move through this difficult period.