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How to support a bereaved colleague at work

Understand the impact of grief at work and how you can support grieving employees

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Understanding the impact of grief at workThe 3 stages to supporting a bereaved employeeWhat to say to a bereaved colleagueHow Spill supports grief at work

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  • Nearly a quarter of working-age adults have experienced bereavement in the past year.
  • Grief manifests in various ways, including numbness, anger, regret, fear, and forgetfulness.
  • Managers should emphasise empathy, clearly communication, and offer flexibility in accommodating their grieving employee's needs.

When a member of your team tells you that someone close to them has died, it can feel like a big responsibility as a manager to support that employee’s grief in the workplace.

Nearly a quarter of working-age adults have experienced bereavement over the last year. But, our awkwardness and embarrassment around death often make us shy away from the person who’s grieving, and that leaves everyone feeling a little worse in a sad situation. 

Unfortunately, there is no Bereavement 101. While your colleague could handle loss in countless different ways, you can equip yourself (and your company) with the tools to support grieving employees compassionately and consistently. 

But before we think about how to support employees through grief and loss, let’s first look at the impact of grief in the workplace for a bereaved employee.

Understanding the impact of grief at work

Grief is horrible, painful, and completely individual. No matter the person’s relation to the person who’s died, any bereavement can bring about intense thoughts, feelings and behaviours. And, these emotions don’t just happen at home: 58% of employees feel that their performance at work was affected by grief months after the bereavement.

The response to grief can be wild and unpredictable, and while navigating grief in the workplace can impact your employee’s confidence, productivity, and ability to concentrate, they will likely be wrestling with some difficult responses in their headspace, too:

👉 Numbness: Grief can cause people to run on auto-pilot. They may feel dazed and numb, and may have nightmares. These are normal experiences of shock, and may cause your bereaved employee to feel disorientated and out of touch with the world around them.

👉 Anger: Your employee may feel angry towards themselves, towards others, and towards the world. They may be angry that this has happened to someone they care about or angry that they couldn’t do anything to prevent it. They may even feel angry towards the person who has died.

👉 Regret and guilt: Internally, your grieving employee may be dealing with a running commentary of all the things they wish they had or hadn’t done. This can be an incredibly exhausting and emotionally draining part of the grieving process.

👉 Fear and anxiety: Your employee may start to worry about the health and welfare of themselves or others. It’s also not uncommon for people to feel anxious or frightened without knowing exactly what they’re worrying about. 

👉 Physical reactions: (Genuine) sick days may tick up for a while as your employee works through the physical responses to grief, like pain in their stomach or chest, more frequent colds and viruses, or changes in their eating, sleeping, and energy levels.

👉 Strange hope: Your employee may at times feel as if the loss will change, or is not permanent.

👉 Outbursts: Grief at work can show up as sudden tearfulness or anger, and these emotions can can seemingly appear out of the blue.

👉 Forgetfulness: While their brain is processing their grief, don’t be surprised if your employee starts forgetting simple things (that they wouldn’t usually forget), like phone numbers or where they put a document.

👉 Relief: This is especially common if your employee had a difficult relationship, or were responsible for someone’s care before they died. It’s important to be aware that alternating between complex feelings of relief and guilt can be especially exhausting.

👉 Feeling worse as time goes on: The full effects of grief may not hit home until some time later. It can be an unwelcome surprise for your employee to find that they feel worse after two months than they did after two weeks.

As a manager, it’s important to accept that when it comes to supporting bereaved employees, an impact on their performance is almost inevitable. But, offering the right support in the first instance can go a long way to helping them regain a sense of normality and purpose later down the line.

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Use our support plan to understand the impact of grief at work and how you can support your bereaved employee to help them navigate the complex feelings of grief in the workplace

The 3 stages of supporting a bereaved employee

The way your company handles bereavement and grief at work is something that your employee will remember for a really long time. We’ve broken this process down into three key stages to help you respond to each situation with compassion and empathy.

1. How to support a bereaved employee when they tell you someone has died 

This might be a short conversation directly with your colleague, or with someone in their family. The two most important things to get across at this stage are:

  • Letting them know that you’re sorry for their loss
  • Reassuring them that you’re not expecting them at work, unless for whatever reason they’d like to be there

There are a few things that’d be good for you to know, too. You could clarify these at the same time if it feels right, or follow up a couple of days later — email is usually better than phoning, so your employee can respond in their own time. 

  • Ask them whether they’d like to take any extended leave from work, and let them know what they’re entitled to. This may be paid or unpaid leave, according to your company’s bereavement policy.
  • Check how they’d like to keep in touch, and how often.
  • See whether they’re comfortable with you telling the wider team about their bereavement. Some people would rather their absence is communicated as a family emergency; others might appreciate words of condolences from their colleagues. 
  • If you don’t have full visibility of their workload, you could check whether there are any tasks that you should hand over to another member of the team while they’re away. Only do this if you feel like it’ll relieve some stress or worry about returning to work. 

If you don’t get a response, try not to chase them. For most people, work will not be on their radar.

2. How to support a bereaved employee while they’re on bereavement leave

Your grieving employee is likely to be very preoccupied, practically and emotionally. Be respectful with the amount of contact you have, and remember to take any cultural or religious traditions relating to death or mourning into account. 

  • Send a card or gift to their home, if you think it’s appropriate. 
  • You could let them know about any mental health support that’s available through your company, or any practical bereavement support that’s offered by your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Include links to access these resources directly, if you can – nobody wants to sift around for employee numbers or logins while they’re grieving. 
  • Towards the end of their leave, arrange a meeting to talk about how they’d like to return to work. A phased return might be appropriate if it’ll stop them feeling overwhelmed. 
  • You need to be clear about any repercussions a phased return or a shift to part time work would have on their pay. Bear in mind that their financial situation may have changed, particularly if it’s a partner who’s died, or they’ve had to fund a funeral unexpectedly.

3. How to support a bereaved employee’s return to work

Try and predict which aspects of work could be difficult for your employee. Even the smallest gestures might be appreciated — from meeting them outside the office on their first morning back, to moving that big team catch-up online. 

  • Acknowledge their bereavement. This one’s easy to forget about or sidestep around but it’s an important step before you start discussing practical job stuff. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who’s died or use their name if your employee brings them up. 
  • Consider adjusting your employee’s performance metrics for a while. On average, the productivity of someone who’s experienced intense grief remains at 70% of their normal capacity for the first 6 months. You may need to bring in some extra help for the rest of the team in the meantime. 
  • Add regular catch ups to the diary. Make sure your colleague knows that your door is open if any issues come up or they start finding work much harder than usual. Remember to act as a glorious signpost for your team’s mental health resources. 
  • Offer more flexibility around their working day, if you can. Working different shifts or working from home occasionally could help someone to manage if their responsibilities have changed significantly after a loss. Having the flexibility to spend an hour here or there dealing with practical matters or attending counselling sessions could make a big difference to their overall wellbeing, too.  
  • A person who’s experiencing grief often has a lot of support immediately after their loss, but it’s important to remember that just because someone’s back at work, doesn’t mean their grieving is over. Often grief will sink in right when everyone else’s life is ‘back to normal’. Anniversaries and birthdays can be especially difficult, and your employee may appreciate a bit of extra support dealing with their grief at work around those times.

Spill gives you everything you need to support your team's mental health.

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What to say to a bereaved colleague

It can be difficult to know what to say to a colleague who is grieving, and often, that can make us shy away from saying anything at all. But try not to let that happen. Your employee is going through one of the most difficult periods of life they’ll ever have to face: your words, however simple, can show support, love, and light during a very dark time.


  • Say something, in a simple and honest way, like “I’m so sorry to hear that your father has died” or “I’m sorry for your loss”.
  • Check in on how they’re feeling by asking “How are you doing today?” or "What sort of day are you having today?".
  • Offer specific ways to help, like “I’m going to get some lunch, can I bring you anything?” or “I’ve got a free afternoon if you’d like some help with [insert work task]?”.
  • Use the language they use — many people will use a certain word like “died”, “passed away”, “lost” or “moved on”. Follow their lead here to keep them feeling comfortable.
  • Share any kind words or stories about the person who died, but only if you knew them.
  • Include them in any workplace social plans and keep including them even if they continue to decline.


  • Don’t avoid them or wait too long to say something.
  • Avoid saying things like “they’ve gone to a better place” or “they lived a good life” as your colleague may feel like their feelings are being dismissed.
  • Try not to ask open-ended questions like “How are you?”, which can feel insincere and overwhelming to answer.
  • Avoid language that assumes how they’re feeling like “I know what you’re going through” — feelings of grief are complex and different for everyone.

How Spill supports grief at work

Grief in the workplace is heavy and unpredictable. Avoiding the subject entirely might feel easier (or even like the sensitive thing to do) but it’s one of the worst things you can do when managing a bereaved colleague. We wrote this guidance to help you and your managers feel more comfortable when dealing with difficult conversations around loss. But, we also know that an employee navigating grief at work may benefit from professional support.  

And that’s where Spill can help. 

“My Spill therapist specialises in handling trauma. I feel listened to, I feel heard, I feel safe. She gives me techniques to use when I'm in a triggering situation, and she also explains to me what she thinks is the reason I react to certain things.”

— Tanja Andreh, Talent Lead at IDEO, bravely shares how therapy with Spill is helping her navigate the ongoing mental load of losing her parents and other close family members at a young age. Read her full story 👉

Spill provides employees with high-quality talk therapy that’s accessible, affordable, and free at the point of use. Our professional therapists are in the top 13% of BACP- and NCS- registered therapists and between them, offer therapy in 15 languages across 80 areas of specialist therapeutic expertise — including grief.

And unlike other workplace mental health solutions, which tend to tie you into an annual contract that covers the whole team, Spill’s Starter Plan lets you to offer targeted support to a bereaved employee:

✅ Next-day sessions with a professional therapist

✅ Courses of therapy (up to 8 sessions) with the same therapist 

✅ Easy access via Slack or MS Teams

✅ Pay only for the therapy sessions used

✅ No monthly subscription cost

Bereavement is one of the hardest challenges life throws at us. And we believe that when this happens, your employees — the brain power that keeps your company going — deserve the very best support to help them through such a difficult time.

Spill helps you to spot when employees are struggling to cope, and gives them access to counsellors covering 80+ areas of expertise, including bereavement.

Learn more about Spill's counsellors
Submit document logo

Download our free grief support plan for managers

Use our support plan to understand the impact of grief at work and how you can support your bereaved employee to help them navigate the complex feelings of grief in the workplace