Supporting a grieving colleague
Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees struggling with grief.
My employee's mother passed away last month after a long illness. They took some time off and are now back at work. I can see that the grief is affecting their work, causing them to be irritable and withdrawn. What can I do?
Acknowledge its a difficult time
Be careful about assuming that grief is the only factor in the change you see in your team member. You might be right but we can never be ceratin about what someone else is feeling unless they tell us.
If he is “keeping busy to avoid the grief” it isn’t unusual. Grief is such a powerful and tiring emotion that its natural for us to feel the need to focus on something else instead of the terrible pain that grief brings with it.
The most valuable intervention you can make is to have a chat with him and to ask him about his feelings.
Try to avoid questions that have obvious answers. For example, one question that bereaved people find exasperating is, “How are you?” Grieving people will often think “How the hell do you think I am?”
Try and bit a more creative and give your team member an opportunity to focus more in the moment. Something like, “I know it’s been a really hard time for you and I’m wondering how you’re coping with being back at work?”
The most you can do is show that you care about him and that you’re aware that it’s a challenging time. Don’t underestimate the value of that because it’s really precious.
Grief takes the time that it takes and it will not and cannot be rushed.
Try and check in with him regularly without being intrusive. Once he knows that you’re aware of how tough it is for him you can find other ways to see how he’s doing. A favourite question of mine is. “What kind of day are you having?” It’s helpful because it demands only that he think here and now which, when in the midst of grief, is hard but sometimes a relief.
Don’t underestimate how you’re already doing a lot by showing your concern for him. People often try and avoid grief and the grieving but it's a mistake because we need to know that others are thinking of us and that they will still treat us the same way.
Ask about their needs
It sounds like you are a compassionate manager. Supporting someone is about standing by their side as they walk their difficult walk. To say to someone that I am here and I can handle what you throw at me; to say that you are part of their scaffolding. The easiest way to do this is to ask someone ‘What do you need?’. They may not know or they may say ‘nothing’, and we need to respect this. We can still offer gestures along the way such as smiles and cups of tea, etc…anything that gently eases their world. We can also invite them to do things with us so they stay connected – ‘Fancy a walk?’ or ‘The team are doing X later, would you like to join us?’. Ultimately though, everything is their decision and choice. We stand back and honour their needs.
Perhaps some gentle exploration of what he needs at this time may be a helpful start. He may not know, but just set a regular check-in to ask. You could gently suggest ideas if he feels stuck (such as chatting to a Spill Therapist or readjusting work deadlines or grief support). You can also bring in your observations - “I realise you’ve been through a lot with your mum’s illness and death and I notice you’ve been more withdrawn lately…can I help in any way?”.
It's lovely you’re concerned for him but be mindful about not trying to ‘rescue’ him; when we do this it’s more about OUR needs. WE want this person to be OK and WE want to make it all better for them. This can be unhelpful to both parties as the rescuer is always trying to find new ‘solutions’ and can become consumed with this as a project (and ultimately exhausted). They can also be left feeling utterly helpless as many emotional events are not problems that can be solved but experiences to adapt to with support and time.
Grief is an emotional and transitional journey and the experience is different for everyone. There is no ‘right way’ to grieve. Your report will need to process it in whatever way makes sense to him. There’s a lot going on. You can offer him the space to do this. If his mood interferes with the wellbeing of others, you can also gently make him aware of this and work towards a more helpful team environment. Being irritable is understandable but it doesn’t mean it's OK. You can support him with other pathways to express his distress at the world so he doesn’t take it out on the team. There may come a time when you look at adjustments in his work due to his cognitive capacity; would it be helpful to delegate certain tasks for a short period?
The most important thing you can offer him is the space and understanding he needs at this time. And if you’re not sure, just ask him.
Have a private conversation
You asked about your report who has recently lost his mother. You have noticed he is not himself at work. He is irritable and withdrawn which is of course not unusual after a bereavement. You want to know what you can do here.
I suggest that you:
- Arrange a time for a private one-to-one conversation with your report. Try not to make him feel singled out. If you already have regular catch ups with him this would be a suitable time to talk.
- Ask him how he is finding being back at work. It is normal and caring that you would want to see how he is doing so there is no reason to feel awkward about this. Allow him to talk about things in his own way initially. He may acknowledge he is struggling without you saying anything.
- If he acknowledges a problem, help him to think about his needs. Ask what could help him to cope at this time and if he finds that anything helps currently. Does he need any support in the workplace?
- If he is not aware of how he is coming across you will need to sensitively let him know what is happening. Share with him what you observed. This may be that he is not contributing to team discussions or that he seems irritated at times. If there are any negative impacts, help him to understand what they are. If there aren’t any significant negative impacts, you may find that it is sufficient to just check in with him how he is doing and if he needs anything.
- Bear in mind that anger is a stage of the grief process as is depression. It’s inevitable that grief will have an impact on your report’s mood and behaviour but that should not stop you from pointing out unacceptable behaviour in the workplace.
- Also bear in mind that grief lasts as long as it lasts. The time it takes to recover from a bereavement is different for different people. We often function as though people will recover from grief quickly after a loss. The reality is that grief is a process and challenging emotions last longer than the initial weeks or months after a death although they do naturally become more manageable over time.
If you feel your employee needs emotional support, you could mention Spill to him as a resource. Grief is a natural process and most people do not need therapy for grief however. If your employee is not open to therapy, he should not feel pressured in any way to have it. Grief is normal and should not be pathologised.