Providing Clarity for Grieving Employees




Loss and grief are inevitable parts of life. While many managers will be faced with mourning employees at some point during their career, the ongoing rise of COVID in the US suggests it’s something more people may be managing in a work context. Today’s Sensemaker offers some thoughts on how you can support others through this process in your role as manager.


I’ll start by stepping back to talk about the role of a manager. As a manager, your fundamental role is achieving goals through the work of others. The main obstacle to people achieving goals together is confusion — that reality doesn’t match expectations, leading people to spin unproductively in fight / flight / freeze reactions, rather than focusing on whatever they need to do to move the ball forward.

Loss of loved ones is one of the most confusing, painful experiences a person can have. Adding the extra layer of fear for their own safety in the pandemic context increases that pain and confusion even further.

As a manager, you’re likely not equipped with the therapeutic toolkit to help your people with the actual process of grief. What you can do, however, is create as much clarity as you can around their work and your expectations. Given the pain and confusion of sudden loss, people will be primed to create fear narratives around their work and role. Some will wonder if it’s really safe for them to take time off. Others will feel like they’re letting the team down by letting their work slip. Others may want to work as a way to connect to a sense of normality but struggle to admit that they’re in too hard a place to think clearly. In other words, your job when it comes to helping your people face sudden disruptions to their lives is to offer as much clarity about their work that they have the space / bandwidth to process their emotions elsewhere in their life with less pressure / distraction.

Practically, some ways you can do this include:

  • Design for disruption: For both your own stress levels and that of the grieving employee(s), it’s better to have a triage plan in place *ahead* of time. This means having a clear view of the different workstreams the team is currently holding, a clear force-ranking in terms of prioritization (especially when it comes to delivery timelines), and a general view of who on the team can best take on work from another team member in an emergency.
  • Clarify the culture around grief: Your people want to know what behaviors are expected of them in the face of this kind of confusing, painful event. If you aspire to a culture that creates space for people to process their emotions and bring their best selves to work, then for the grieving person, you’ll want to let them know that you’re invested in their emotional wellbeing, that you want them to prioritize it, and that (per your design for disruption) their work is taken care of for now. For others, you’ll want to reinforce that message, encouraging them to both reach out and pitch in to take over as much as possible to give the grieving employee space to move through their emotions before coming back to work.
  • Balance giving space with staying close: While you don’t want to further stress the grieving employee by hovering over them (and implicitly giving the signal they should be thinking about work), you do want to let them know they’re still part of the team. A bi-weekly check-in to hear how they’re doing, share the latest news on the team, and, when they’re up for it, offering small, clear pieces of work they can do as an onramp back into business as usual.
  • Where possible, make outside resources available: Like designing for disruption, having a set of outside resources already identified and available before any major loss will minimize the load on both you and the person grieving. Potential resources to consider making available include grief counseling, logistics support for how to deal with the body / estate issues with the current distancing guidelines, meal delivery services, etc. The less the grieving employee has to deal with, and the more tangible support they experience from you and the broader team, the more likely they are to both be able to process their grief and experience their job as a source of support rather than stress in the face of pain.

  • Have you dealt with an employee facing a major disruptive life event before?
  • If so, what did you do? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
  • What is your own relationship to people in a state of grief? 


Review key workflows on your team and ask yourself the following:

  • Do you have a clear sense of how they are prioritized?
  • Do you have back up plans in place if key employees aren’t available?
  • If the answer to either of the above two questions is no, take 30 minutes to create a brief outline of how to triage current workflows if key employees were no longer available.


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