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My Loved One Died, But I Have to Go to Work

How employers can help support grieving employees

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On January 26, 2020, the death of basketball legend, Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven of their friends shocked the world.  Kobe Bryant’s life touched and inspired millions.  Although I did not know Kobe personally, I, and countless others who were inspired by Kobe, feel a great sense of loss over Kobe’s tragic death and the deaths of those who passed away with him.  

As my grandmother used to say, “Death is a part of living.”  That truth does not make losing someone easier to bear. Yet, the reality is that every day, someone is dealing with the loss of a loved one.  If you have a job, it is likely that at least one of your colleagues is enduring grief over the death of someone close to them.  As the world mourns the loss of an icon, I want to take this time to remind companies how they make the workplace a more supportive place for employees handling grief.

Returning to work can present a sense of routine and normalcy after the passing of a dear friend or family member.  To some, this normalcy is calming.  For others, it is overwhelming.  The loss of a loved one can lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia and a host of other mental health conditions.  As mental health is equally important as physical health, employers should take special care to address the well-being of its grieving employees. 

Understanding that everyone handles grief differently, employers can help to the ease an employee’s transition back into the workplace by instituting a few simple actions. 

  • Create a bereavement leave policy.  No federal law requires companies to provide leave for bereavement, and Oregon and Illinois are the only states that require employers to offer bereavement leave.  Despite the fact that most employers are not required to offer this type of leave, providing time off for grieving employees is a great way for companies to demonstrate that they care about the good of their employees and give the employee necessary time need to mourn the death of a loved one.   Companies should work with a human resources consultant or an employment law attorney to create a policy that best fits the culture of their organizations. 
  • Acknowledge the Grieving Employee’s Loss. I am always at a loss for words when trying to offer my condolences to someone who has lost a loved one.  I’m sure that many of us who want to comfort our grieving colleagues feel the same way.  It is important to offer a word of encouragement, no matter how simple, to acknowledge the passing of the grieving employee’s loved one.  The acknowledgement can be as simple as, “I’m really sorry for your loss, and please let me know if there is anything I can do to support you during this time.”  Speak from your heart, and know that every word of encouragement is comforting to a grieving employee.
  • Grant a Reasonable Accommodation for Mental Health Conditions. Obtaining the help of a mental health professional can assist a grieving employee with the grieving process.  As such, employees should be allowed to take time off to attend appointments with mental health providers.  Employers should make sure that they understand their legal obligations to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees who request to take time off to attend a therapy appointment.  The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide employees with a reasonable accommodation for certain medical conditions.  As the EEOC explained,  

A reasonable accommodation is some type of change in the way things are normally done at work. Just a few examples of possible accommodations include altered break and work schedules (e.g., scheduling work around therapy appointments), quiet office space or devices that create a quiet work environment, changes in supervisory methods (e.g., written instructions from a supervisor who usually does not provide them), specific shift assignments, and permission to work from home.

  • Do Not Retaliate Against Employees Seeking a Reasonable Accommodation for a Mental Health Condition. Employers should thoughtfully consider employee requests for accommodations to seek mental health treatment, with a clear understanding of their legal requirements to provide such accommodation under state, federal, and local law.   Employers should also clearly understand the legal prohibitions against retaliating against employees who request a reasonable accommodation.

  • Invest in an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) Program and Provide Information About How Employees Can Access This Program. Providing resources to employees to work through their grief is a great way for companies to demonstrate that they are committed to the well-being of their workforce.  An EAP is an employer-paid benefit that typically offers confidential counseling and other assistance to employees facing traumatic life events.  EAPs vary in their service offerings, ranging from grief counseling to legal and financial assistance.  These programs often allow employees to utilize them for a limited period of time.  Investing in an EAP for your company’s employees can be an effective tool to support employees who may not know the resources available to the them to help address their grief.  The EAP provider may also be able to give the employee a referral to a provider outside of the EAP to assist the employee on a long-term basis.

Grief does not end simply because an employee is on the clock.  Acknowledging the reality that loss often comes unexpectedly, companies can play a monumental role in providing a beacon of light to their employees at a time of great sadness.   

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