Beyond Bereavement Leave

Many MSEC members have bereavement leave guidelines in their employee handbooks, but there are other ways for employers to assist with a death in an employee’s family or a fatal workplace accident.

The first challenge is to consider what to share with coworkers. Best practice is to talk to the employee/family if possible to respect their wishes. If that is not possible, stress to coworkers the importance of the employee’s privacy and keep information brief and simple.

HR can guide the employee’s supervisor in any benefits available to the employee, including bereavement and other leaves or use of the Employee Assistance Program. HR in some circumstances can be the main contact for the employee or family. It may be necessary, especially if an employee dies, to offer counseling to coworkers. Coworkers may struggle with shock, grief, or how to respond to the coworker’s family.

Employees may ask what they can do to reach out to a bereaved employee or family of a deceased employee. HR or the supervisor can contact the employee or family to ask what is acceptable or to suggest cards, emails or texts of condolences, food, flowers, gift cards, or donations to a charity. It’s better to offer a solution than to just say, “Let me know if you need anything.” Grieving people generally don’t have the energy to help themselves, nor do they have the energy to manage the people who want to help them. It’s nothing personal, they just don’t have it in them. So the offer might be, “I made a casserole, may I bring it by?” Or, “I’m thinking you might be struggling with your day-to-day, may I come over and do your dishes/a load of laundry/vacuum/mow the lawn/[insert chore here]?” Or, “I have some time today, I’d love to take your kids to the park for a few hours/have a play date/have a sleepover to give you a chance to check out.”

Supervisors and employees can offer to take over projects so the employee does not need to be concerned that their workload will just sit and pile up. Note of caution here: the employee may want to complete or be involved with some of their workload as a means of healing. The supervisor can be supportive as well as bring relief to the employee by just saying, “Let me know if you need anything from me” or “If anything should change, let me know.” Additionally, use discretion with the question “How are you doing?” That question is too trite given its everyday usage, and the response might be as automatic as it is any normal day. Acknowledgement that they are going through a hard time is a better option, as is letting them know that they are in your thoughts and you are there for them.

Then the question comes of attending any memorial service or funeral. It may surprise you that there are those who prefer to keep the services private and just for families, away from those in the work environment. This must be respected. Everyone grieves differently–some people need that space to grieve. In the case of a death of a coworker, the employer/employees may decide to have a memorial service in the workplace to give employees time to express their grief or celebrate the life of their coworker.

In regard to returning to work, HR or the supervisor can be in contact with the employee to make periodic checks of how they are doing and get an idea when the employee thinks they can return. When the employee comes back to work, a flexible work schedule may be suggested, again to give the employee time to readjust to the schedule and workload. The supervisor also needs to continue frequent checks after the employee is back to work to see how they are doing. As stated before, everyone goes through grief in different ways and the work environment can be supportive and flexible to assist the employee during this difficult transition of their life.