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How to Help an Employee Through a Loss

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Simple steps to react with sensitivity and empathy to a grieving employee

A person who has experienced a profound loss can face the same repercussions as a trauma victim—lack of motivation, inability to concentrate, impaired decision-making, anxiety and more, says Lisa Kaplin, psychologist and professional certified life coach.

While grief is a tough topic to approach, for the person experiencing the grieving, there is no such thing as “moving on” or “coming to terms,” she says. The person might experience a lessening of intensity in grief but the loss remains.

Ten million people in the U.S. each year develop “complicated grief,” which includes prolonged acute grief, and avoidance of the loss, according to the School of Social Work at Columbia University.

Kaplin says a shop leader should not assume his or her employee going through the loss is going to shy away from wanting to talk about it. In her experience, the months leading up to and after the loss might be a critical time for the employee and have the most impact on other shop processes.

In order to approach the team member, Kaplin shares tips for how to help an employee through a loss in a thoughtful and appropriate manner.

 

As told to Melissa Steinken

Be Cautious About Your Approach.

Be really careful about the words and phrases you use during the mourning time or before that time. Cliche phrases can take away from the loss.

Avoid phrases like, “I know how you feel” and, “It’s God’s will.”

Phrase it instead as, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and not as anything else. When people use phrases like, “It’s meant to be” or “They’re in a better place,” it can cause more hurt. You just need to be sorry and try not to fix his or her feelings, because you can’t.

Be vulnerable. To help staff avoid keeping their emotions bottled up, you want to be vulnerable yourself in your approach to the topic. Above all else, open the door to a conversation, whether the employee wants to participate or not.

 

Check in From the Start.

While each situation is different, you should check in with the employee weekly at least for a few months. But, remember to be sensitive about the situation.

First, if there is a service for the employee’s loved one, attend in person. If that is not possible, send a card or even donate to a charity that relates to the situation. It might sound crazy, but people respond very well to food.

You could even send a company-wide email reminding there are policies in place, whether those are the shop’s policies or offering outside resources.

Maybe even check in at lunch or for a quick break. Say, “Hey, I’m just checking in to see how you’re doing.” Simply asking him or her to go grab a cup of coffee and talk could even go a long way.

 

Don’t Ignore the Situation.

When a staff member comes back to work, approach him or her and ask to sit with them quietly. A lot of people think that when their employees come back to work after a loss, he or she won’t want to talk about it. More often than not, that is not the case.

One of the things people say when they experience a big loss is that they feel lonely because other people might be afraid to talk to them.

If the boss is not comfortable approaching the employee in front of the whole office, send him or her a private note. The note can describe how the boss also wanted to make sure he or she did not put the staff member in an uncomfortable position by addressing it in front of everyone.

Remember that it is all about connecting versus disconnecting during a loss. Say, “Hey, tell me more about him or her.”

 

Turn to Other Sources.

If he or she does not take your option to talk, you can offer outside support systems, like a grief counselor and local support groups.

Depending on the shop, if the owner offers a health insurance plan to staff, often the insurance companies can provide a list of therapists. Or, simply ask around at local hospitals or general practitioners. You can call the local hospital and say you are looking for a recommendation because you have an employee that is grieving.

 

Be Flexible.

It’s ironic that a lot of companies only give a grief leave of four to five days when the symptoms of grief can be the same as a traumatic event.

The time period should be extended even by a week or two. It could take the employee six months to even a year to feel like he or she is semi-back to their old ways. It’s hard to allow this, especially for hourly employees. One solution would be offering the employee the chance to slowly come back to work instead of all at once.

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