How to support younger employees grieving a death

By Kyra Sutton

November 09, 2021

There is no universal length of time that a person might need to fully grieve the loss of a loved one. And yet most workplaces give employees a finite amount of time: We call it bereavement leave. Sometimes it’s paid; often it’s not. The average policy is a leave of only three days.

Returning to work (after bereavement leave) signals it is time to put “that” behind you. It depersonalizes the workplace, and it gives organizations an easy out. Longer-term support is left for employees to figure out, and too often resources are few and far between.

Sadly, during the pandemic managers are more likely to have an employee lose a family member.

According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “For every COVID-19 death, approximately nine surviving Americans will experience the death of a close relative (e.g., grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse). For younger adults, parental and grandparental death can result in weakened connections to other family members, poor mental health, and less economic security.”

I led an online discussion with my current college students to figure out what young adults want their managers to do when they experience a loss. They were encouraged to share two to three recommendations. Overall, the young adults I surveyed made 150 recommendations, and they can be grouped into five categories: paid time off, employer-provided counseling or access to a therapist, managerial support and empathy, extended work deadlines, and other gestures (like sending gifts).

Not surprisingly, paid time off was the most common suggestion (37% of women ranked it their top priority; while 39% of men did). This benefit was deemed essential to young adults because, naturally, grief for them—like for many of us—comes in waves, and they can’t be expected to simply “move on.” As expressed by one: “Managers should understand when it comes to the death of a loved one, work comes second.”

While offering employees time off, preferably paid, was the first choice among all participants—their second most common suggestion differed slightly by gender.

For women, that recommendation was for companies to offer access to counseling and therapy. As one female student shared: “Giving the employee the option to speak to someone can help. Even if the employee decides not to see the counselor, having the option makes the employee feel heard and supported.”

Additionally, some women mentioned the benefit of organizations providing financial support for therapy sessions. Finally, they suggested organizations start support groups, virtually or in person, where grieving employees can share their experiences with others in the same situation. Creating employee support groups symbolizes that the organization cares about their employees’ well-being and eases the loneliness and isolation the employee may experience during the grieving process.

For men, seeking support from their managers was the second most common suggestion related to dealing with the death of a loved one. Specifically, they want the manager’s role to evolve, including lending a listening ear and demonstrating empathy. Unlike a one-size-fits-all policy such as bereavement leave, managers can and should recognize each employee grieves differently; a personalized approach is welcomed (which was also expressed by female respondents).

Some male students described the importance of their manager acknowledging their contributions. It reminds them of the value they’re adding at work, even though they are dealing with a difficult loss. As one young man shared: “A person is very sensitive (after a death). The smallest recognition can make someone’s day a little easier. It would make me feel supported and understood.”

So, how can managers support young adults when they experience the death of a loved one? I offer a few suggestions.

Share resources and spread awareness

Most young adults have never heard of bereavement leave; building awareness will help them understand their options. Therefore, within 24 hours of managers learning about the employee’s loss they should make the employee aware of the company’s policies. If the company doesn’t offer bereavement leave, make employees aware whether they can take PTO days (or even unpaid leave). Also, if other employees can donate their PTO, managers can encourage their team to share days. Finally, it’s important that the manager share available resources for counseling and therapy, including any company-sponsored support groups.

Offer benefits

Organizations can take a few actions to support employees who are experiencing a loss. Instating a bereavement policy is just the first step.

A few other ways to advocate for your employees include loosening the definition of what bereavement policies are, which means expanding them to the loss of relatives outside the employee’s immediate family or other important persons in the employee’s life. Moreover, employees should be allowed a part of their working time, shortly after their loss, to talk to a professional.

Manage expectations

The most important role managers have after young adults experience the death of a loved one is managing their workload. When employees return to the workplace after losing a loved one they are still in the grieving process, whether they verbalize it or not. Helping them figure out what they need to work on first relieves stress and allows employees to strategize how to spend their time.

Kyra Leigh Sutton, PhD, is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her research interests include the development and retention of early-career employees.

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