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Friday, February 27, 2009

Helping an Employee Cope with Grief

Death is a difficult reality, especially when an employee loses a loved one. Individuals deal with grief in different ways and often are unaware of a change in there behavior. Managers, by and large, are not mental health professionals, but should be compassionate human beings willing to demonstrate that compassion and help their employees through a very difficult time.

Having lost one of my parents when they were not even 50 was pretty traumatic. While I had lost my grandparents as a child and adult, losing my mother when I was 27 was pretty terrible. I found myself in a state of shock and emotionally very unsure.

While my manager and coworkers showed compassion, what was lacking was guidance on how the grieving process would impact my work.

When I was an officer in the US Army, we were trained in how to handle grieving soldiers. Much of that training has been very helpful and relevant. In general, the enormity of the emotional stress from a death consumes a significant portion of critical thinking resources. In a sense, a grieving person isn't functioning at full strength.

To help manage that, the employee needs to be reassured that they are supported in their attempt to get back on with their life. Additionally, the employee needs to know what to expect, specifically, difficulty focusing as well as limited short-term memory. It is also wise not to require any significant decision making for at least six weeks, as it can take that long to begin to regain a sense of normality.

If possible, encourage the employee to have a "buddy" or colleague keep an eye on them and QA their work if necessary. Also, a grieving employee may need flexibility in attending to final arrangements of the deceased, such as legal matters, property and asset disposal, etc. Additionally, many employers have Employee Assistance Plans (EAP) which allow the employee to speak with a counselor via phone.

Death is inevitable. As employees face the death of a loved one or major figure in their life, managers need a sensitivity as well as realistic expectations in supporting that employee. Flexibility, communication, and the buddy system can help the employee regain a sense of normality and give them the support they need in one of the most difficult times of life.

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