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Grief Management playbook:

Part 3


After bereavement leave

The first day back at work for an employee returning from bereavement leave can be a daunting one, not only for them but also for their colleagues and managers. The person returning to work may well be still struggling with their loss. Colleagues almost certainly will not know what to say to them. Meanwhile, managers will be trying to find a balance between the well-being of individuals and simply getting the job done. If you’re in a senior role, it’s going to be up to you to make the transition as smooth and easy as possible for everyone concerned.

The challenges a bereaved employee faces returning to work 

Very low self-confidence

A bereaved employee may feel ‘sucker punched’ by the death, so their trust in themselves, both out in the world at large but also in their role as an employee, can be very fragile. They need time to allow themselves to feel the fear, pain and loss as well as be able to give themselves a break and get on with their ‘normal’ day. Being aware of the times when they are focused on their loss and those times when they have respite from the pain (and feel able to take time to recover from the loss) can be helpful.

Poor memory and an inability to think clearly and get things done

In the first few months following a death, around 80% of our memory is used up adjusting to the new reality that the person we were close to has died, leaving just 20% operational. Following a bereavement, an employee may experience a reduction in productivity of over 50% in the first six months (Source)

Lack of self-compassion

Above all, an employee returning to work should be self-compassionate and kind to themself if they make a mistake. Feeling they didn’t have control over the person dying can often lead to frustration or anger with themself when, for example, they forget to make a phone call or they make a mess of a presentation.

When facing a huge life transition, which grief is, it’s important to remember that small steps often have big outcomes.  If people are ambitious at work, they sometimes want to get grief behind them and over with as soon as they can, but it is better to take things step by step, gently letting their grief lead them.

Just knowing that expectations around their productivity will be lower than normal can really help to put things into perspective. The Grief Works app includes a useful section on self-compassion which can help bereaved employees be more self-forgiving.

What a returning employee can do to help themself 

Create a supportive culture for mental health and bereavement

A thoughtful and sympathetic approach to mental health and bereavement will help a bereaved employee cope better with their loss as well as strengthen your workplace culture and morale. As a leader you can:

  • Talk to their manager about their hours and workload if they are feeling overwhelmed. There may be flexibility around work schedules and team members who can help out.
  • Let their manager know how much engagement and contact they would like with other colleagues.
  • Find out if there is a quiet place they can go to if they need some time and space to themself.
  • Ask their manager or HR for more support and find out what your organisation can offer them in terms of resources such as the Grief Works app.
  • Find someone who is a good listener to talk to within the workplace. Talking is an important part of the healing process. The listener doesn’t have to have any answers, listening is sometimes enough.
  • Be aware that their bereavement might remind others about their own grief so they may want to share their own stories. If it is too much for them, they must speak up.
  • Accept that other people mean well at work – but they probably won’t always say the right thing.

How a manager can help a bereaved employee back to work

Give them a sense of autonomy

Managers should have a conversation with the person that has been bereaved before they come back to work, either as a video call, face-to-face or by telephone, to find out what they feel would be supportive and helpful for them when they return to the workplace, thereby giving collaborative power. Until now, they have felt powerless because the person they loved has died, so as a manager, you are giving power and control over their work-life back to them by helping them shape how they work. This will give them a sense of autonomy – one of the greatest strengths an employee can have and the key to making them want to stay in their job. 

Be realistic when it comes to levels of productivity 

Recognise that the brain is a complex machine and during bereavement, it uses a lot of its firepower for the grieving process.  Be upfront with the team and the person who has been bereaved that it is very unlikely they’re going to be able to work at the same pace or productivity as they did before. Again, a collaborative approach to their workload and expectations around it is helpful. As to how much work the person returning to work can take on, this will often depend on how traumatic the death was, or how close they were to the person who died. For example, when someone suffers the death of a child, the event effectively tears up the rule book of life, leading to the need for them to reorganise their whole psychological sense of themselves and their trust in their life. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to work normally when they come back, so working out what their new work life looks like is really helpful for them, as well as their managers, colleagues and the organisation.

Keeping the door open for ongoing conversations

Keep the door open for the employee to have an ongoing conversation, where you and your organisation listen to and adapt to their varying needs over time.

Grief is very individual and all sorts of emotions, which can take the form of tears, anger, exhaustion or more, can be triggered at any point. 

For some people, work can be the place where they’re able to put their grief to one side and get on with their job, then go home and do their grieving there. But others may need breaks during the working day because they suddenly feel overwhelmed. Encourage people who are grieving to take time for themselves, perhaps to go for a walk, recalibrate, maybe spend 5 or 10 minutes on the Grief Works app, let themselves be in touch with the person that has died and to feel their sadness. Having taken this short time out, they are more able to put their grief down and go back into the part of themselves that is functioning and at work. 

Although emotions can be overwhelming, allowing them to be expressed in safe places can free us to be very effective in workplaces. Most people have a work identity and would not be comfortable breaking down at work because work isn’t their safe place. Most people want some kind of armour to protect them, so the armour you offer as an organisation is the underpinning foundational support that says “we care about you as a person, we want to help you; we acknowledge this is a difficult time for you and let’s see how best we can help you through it”.

Why would a manager use the Grief Works app themselves to better help the people they’re supporting? 

Using the Grief Works app will give managers an expert insight into what grief is, what helps grief, what gets in the way of grief, how it works and how they can help the people in their care. They will be much more confident when they encounter people who are grieving, because they will understand the process more fully. 

Managing a smooth journey back to work

Flexibility and creativity when it comes to working patterns

Listening to what works best for your employee on their return to work is essential. Make sure that your Bereavement Policy has enough flexibility for you to create a pattern that works for your employee. Flexible working patterns can be adopted across most roles in an organisation. Short- and long-term working arrangements can really make a difference to how an employee feels about returning to work and can allow them to balance their work with their personal issues.

Checklist for welcoming back an employee on their first day:

  • As a manager, set up a one-off meeting with the returning employee for their first morning back to help them get up to speed with what’s been happening in the office during their absence.
  • Remind them that it’s more important to work through their grief than ignore how they feel. Encourage them to keep talking to you if they have any concerns.
  • Include them in your team meetings and acknowledge their return with a short, simple and low-key “Great to see you back, Louise” then carry on with your meeting agenda. Make sure they feel part of your team rather than the centre of attention.

Tips for your team on helping a bereaved colleague on their return

  • If unsure, it’s better to say something rather than nothing. And better to say something supportive succinctly without engaging in a long conversation.
  • Don’t bring up or compare your own experiences of death, try to focus on what the bereaved person is  saying in their conversations – they may want to talk about the person who died.
  • Avoid asking generic questions like “how are you?”, instead ask more specific questions that show you recognise they are going through a difficult time, such as “nice to see you here again, how is it back in the office?”
  • Message them to let them know they can come and speak to you, or have a coffee with you, anytime. If they want to, they’ll come to you.
  • Be aware that they might struggle to focus or be as productive as usual, so be kind to them.

The importance of ongoing support

Grief doesn’t end when a person’s bereavement leave does.

The impact of grief on the employee will be ongoing and will need to be matched by the ongoing support offered by the organisation. Everyone’s experience of grief is individual, with some people taking months or years to manage their loss.

How managers can offer ongoing support

  • Encourage ongoing conversations about how the employee is coping and any more help or support they need.
  • Make sure that managers take bereavement into account when appraising an employee’s performance.
  • Share useful resources with employees such as the Grief Works app which is the equivalent of both counselling and therapy, with its 24/7 support, 28-day course, journal and over 30 practical tools.

Advice for managers who are grieving themselves, but are also supporting employees who are grieving

Be kind to yourself and recognise you are grieving too.

  • Acknowledge that supporting a team member who is grieving, while experiencing the added burden of your own grief, is difficult because you will have less capacity to be compassionate as a lot of your emotions are taken up with your own distress. On the other hand, you will have more empathy because you’ll have first-hand experience, albeit your own experience, of the grieving process. 

  • Consider whether you are able to support them as well as yourself. Ask others in your team to support the colleague who is grieving if you think doing this yourself could make you feel too vulnerable and upset. Another option could be to work together with the bereaved person and a colleague as a grief buddy system to help each other. Feeling supported by people who have experienced something similar is very powerful. 

  • Most importantly, ensure you role-model the bereavement support your organisation provides by accessing the help you need, including using the Grief Works app, yourself.


How would the Grief Works app support the team when a member of their team has died?

As well as an individual version, the Grief Works app has family and team versions so you can use it in a group. The team can supportively communicate with each other in relation to grief for the person who has died. Everyone in the team will be grieving in their own way, with some having had individual relationships with the person and others having been less close to them. However, the whole team will be affected by the death. The person is no longer there, yet their desk and chair still are. The death also reminds colleagues of their own mortality. When someone you work with dies, you recognise that you could also die, which is difficult to absorb. The Grief Works app, when used either personally or as a team, can help you process all of these difficulties and more.

Grief will inevitably touch us all – and can have a significant impact on our mental health, if not processed healthily. It is something that we do not tend to talk about, particularly at work. Yet with 9% of an organisation’s workforce being bereaved in any one year, and sadly one in four employees saying they don’t get the support they need from their employer after a bereavement, it’s not an issue that’s going away soon. 

As Julia Samuel says, “Grief is a process that works,” so allow your people the time, space and dignity to grieve. 

Treat your people well, support them through adversity and build a powerful sense of loyalty. 

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“In the depths of my grief a friend recommended the app and I am eternally grateful.

The tools helped me through my saddest loneliest times, when the pain was almost unbearable. The app is money well spent and is helping me through the most difficult, painful time of my life. Thank you.”

Unravels the complexities

This app has done so much to help me unravel the complexities of my grief. Three heavy years of being stuck but after only 10 days I feel lighter and calmer. I’m so glad I found it.

Helpful for anyone grieving

This app is a wonderful resource for anyone who is trying to cope with the death of a loved one and is feeling lost in a new and unwelcome new world. It feels remarkably personal and nurturing.

Like a good friend

It’s been like having a good friend with me each day who understands more than anyone else the despair and loneliness of grief. I wish I’d found this earlier.

Great app

A really powerful tool which is supporting me to move through one of the toughest periods in my life.


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Support at whatever stage you are in your journey

This app has the potential to change your grief journey into a reflective, supportive and more positive experience, at a time when you might be feeling lost, alone and fearful of your future. Highly recommend.