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How To Support A Grieving Colleague

Written by grief specialists Janet Gwilliam-Wright and Dr. Mekel Harris.

Imagine that your coworker has been away from work because of a significant loss and is now returning to the workplace. How do you support them in their transition back into the work environment? What do you say? What do you do

These are common questions that may arise, and thankfully, there are simple strategies that can help:

  • Be present. When returning to work, grieving employees need supportive colleagues to discuss the challenges they may face in transitioning back into their roles. They aren’t their “old selves” and will need time to navigate work matters as they adjust to their new reality post-loss. Grief isn’t linear, and everyone’s experience is different. 
  • Avoid making assumptions. While you may have experienced loss yourself or have an idea of what it may be like to return to work after a loss, do your best to put assumptions about how a grieving employee is feeling aside. Along the same lines, try to resist the reflex of comparing your personal experience with loss to theirs.
  • Prioritise open communication. Anchor your conversations with grieving employees about how they feel about returning to work. You can start by simply acknowledging their loss and by expressing your condolences. Saying nothing may further isolate someone who already feels like they’re on a lonely island. 
  • Extend compassion and not judgement about an employee’s capacity. It is not uncommon for those who grieve to struggle with focus, concentration, and decision-making. In addition, multitasking may be complex and require that the employee receive additional support from colleagues or reduce their workload. 
  • Adopt an active listening approach. Make ongoing efforts to engage with your colleague fully, both verbally and nonverbally. For example, consider turning your phone on “Do Not Disturb” and keeping it out of reach. Dialling in the conversation with your colleague can offer them excellent and much-needed support. 
  • Be flexible and explore various options. Teams often offer employees flexibility in scheduling or completing work tasks. Seek maximum flexibility whenever possible, focusing on keeping the employee engaged and successfully transitioning and reintegrating into the work environment. It’s OK to ask the grieving employee what accommodations they may need in their work. For example, do they need different hours? Can their workload be temporarily adjusted? What specific support do they need from you? In what realistic ways might you be able to support?
  • Check in regularly on how the employee is doing. Make sure you’re periodically meeting 1:1 with your colleague. By checking in regularly over a longer period, grieving employees will experience a greater sense of predictability. During the check-in, invite the employee to help identify creative solutions. Actively pursuing follow-up demonstrates your care and concern about your colleague’s well-being.

By implementing these strategies, teams can create more inclusive, healthy, and compassionate workplaces where employees can thrive, particularly during the most challenging seasons of their lives.

Janet Gwilliam-Wright and Dr. Mekel Harris are grief specialists and the co-founders of Bloomwell Partners.  

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