Dealing with Grief in the Workplace

Posted in : Webinar Recordings on 17 December 2018
Caroline Reidy
The HR Suite
Issues covered:

In this webinar recording, Caroline McEnery, Managing Director of The HR Suite discusses how employers can handle grief in the workplace.Caroline covers a number of important areas including:

  • Why it is important to handle grief correctly
  • The different types of grief
  • Legal entitlements v best practise
  • Employer supports
  • Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP)
  • Guiding your managers

Subscribers (or anyone with a current free trial) of the Irish Employment Law Hub can watch the webinar recording or read the full transcription below.



Lynsey: Good morning, everybody. My name is Lynsey Rainey. I'm from Legal-Island, and I'm here with Caroline McEnery, who's Managing Director at The HR Suite. We're here live for the next 30 minutes to continue with our HR webinar series with a discussion on dealing with grief in the workplace. And we're going to focus on the main points that will be on the screen in just a moment. And hopefully, we'll also get to answer some of your questions. So there's a chat box on the top right-hand corner of the screen. As you're listening in, you can send in your questions and we'll ask Caroline for her thoughts on those. And everything will of course be kept anonymous.

We're just going to give things a few more moments while a few more listeners join us. So we're running this series of HR focus webinars in association with The HR Suite and the National College of Ireland. These webinars are in addition to the other current series of webinars which are legal-based. Some of my colleagues take part in here at Legal-Island. So there's a few more of those coming up in the new year. And just we can let you know at that this point that The HR Suite and Legal-Island webinars will continue into 2019, so you can keep an eye out for the further details on those.

And if you have any ideas of the type of things you'd like to hear from us in 2019, you can send me an email on And then we'll aim to bring you some takeaway advice and tips on some subjects in 2019.

So for anyone that has just joined us, you're all very welcome. And don't forget that you can ask questions in the chat box on the top right-hand corner of the screen. Please do remember that we'll not get down to all of the questions as we're only here for 30 minutes but we'll get to what we have time to cover. The slides will also be available to subscribers after today along with the transcript and the recording. And so back to today, we're going to focus on our chosen topic of grief in the workplace. So let's start firstly by welcoming Caroline from The HR Suite. Good morning, Caroline.

Caroline: Good morning, Lynsey. Great to be here.

Lynsey: Good. Yeah, we're nearly at Christmas so everybody's just on the wind down. And of course, then we're going to talk about this topic, which is really fascinating. And I think from an HR point of view, and why do you think it's such a topical subject that people want to hear about?

Why is it important to consider how to handle grief?

Caroline: I suppose the reason I thought this would be a good topic to talk about this morning is because it's a natural part of life's journey that absolutely every human unfortunately has to experience and go through. And for all employees, this is something that is absolutely life-changing, life-altering, and can be a really challenging time. I always think of the poem that says, you know, "In times like this, you need somebody else to carry you. You know, I saw footprints in the sand, and I need somebody to kind of help you." And I think the employer has a big role to play as a support and as a signpost and just, I suppose, to compassionately deal with something that is, you know, very significant for every employee at some stage of their career with the company.

Different Types of Grief

Lynsey: Yeah, so very true. So, as an employer, what types of grief can we expect to maybe handle in the workplace?

Caroline: I suppose the one thing I would say about this topic is there's no such thing as one-size-fits-all. Like it's very much individual, toward individual to the relationship they have with the person that might be, you know, unwell, and the loss is eminent, which is anticipatory grief. And you may have situations that, you know, people get a real shock when somebody passes away, it was unexpected, and you've lots of complications and really sad scenarios as well, whether that might be suicide, which, again, is always the most challenging to just basically losing a loved one. And then I suppose we've delayed grief, which is, you know, basically the whole concept that we're so busy looking after everybody else that we, as individuals, maybe don't necessarily deal with or look after our own loss, or our own grief until much longer down the road. And the grief eventually raises its head at that stage.

Lynsey: Yeah, of course. And I suppose like grief doesn't just come from death, does it? Grief can come from other areas as well.

Caroline: Yeah, and I suppose loss is the way I always term, you know, this because it doesn't necessarily be it's not death alone, it's loss and that might be a separation, it might be a breakup, you know, it might be any number of things. And, again, that's why of all HR issues, we always say, we're dealing with humans. So even though we might have a policy, we might have a process, etc., it's probably of all of the areas we deal with as HR people and practitioners and managers, the one that we need to be as individual as we can and as open in that, you know, area of understanding as we possibly can.

Legal Entitlements v Best Practice

Lynsey: Yeah, of course. And what about then moving on, just sort of the legal side of things versus best practice?

Caroline: I suppose, legally, there is no specific requirement in place to give people compassionate leave. But I would say the majority, if not all companies, at least have a policy around it or have given it some consideration. But the number of days range from one day for, you know, specific relations, etc., up to three to four days would be the norm. And that would be kind of a benchmark, I suppose, in terms of what people give in terms of their policy. But for me, I suppose the best practice approach now is very much focusing on the longer the person stays out depending on what they need, like for some people, they want to return sooner and it's actually in a month's time that they need a bit more time.

For more people, they need to stay out longer to give themselves a chance to do what is required both functionally and also to process things a bit longer. That the longer we let people stay out and the more we support them at that early stage, the better it is for the individual, the better it is for the company, and the better it is in terms of that relationship of trust and support that we build with our employees. Because at the end of the day, it's times like that, that they will say, "My employer really stepped up to the plate and did everything they could," or vice versa. It's the time that they say, "They don't care about me so this isn't the long-term company for me."

Lynsey: Yeah, and I mean, I read an article myself there this morning, just when I was doing a wee bit of prep. And, you know, it was talking about just giving people three days, and this guy as an employer then experienced the loss of his own daughter to, you know, which gave him a whole new perspective on the time, the support that he needed to give to his employees. So I suppose people maybe need to bear that in mind as well a wee bit.

Caroline: Yeah, absolutely. And I suppose we're finding now that companies in general are starting to be a lot more human-focused. And for me, starting with grief and loss, you know, is a really important one, as I say, because there's nobody that's going to be untouched. And there are a lot of proactive things we can do, which we'll get to in a minute. But for me, it's, proactively planning and supporting managers because one of the things we say a lot when we do these webinars, Lynsey, is the importance that a lot of managers want to do the right thing, but they don't have the skills or the expertise to know what the right thing to do is or what the right thing to say is. So we need to support them to guide them and give them, I suppose, the signpost to say, "Look, this is what you should say, this is what you should do, and basically, this is what not to say."

Employer Supports and EAP

Lynsey: Yeah, of course, we have a wee bit and to talk about that a wee bit more detail later on. But just I suppose then the next point will have is employer supports.

Caroline: So for me there are a couple of different things to consider. So I suppose grief is something that there are lots of books and lots of really good information out there on. So for example, retirement is another area that we prepare people in advance and say, "Look, there's lots of information available to help support you with the retirement because people have travelled this path before, and this is the learnings they have, you know, gleaned from it." The same is the case here. I suppose we, as HR advisory company, have seen and dealt with and supported companies and have lots of learnings that we're very happy to share. And particularly, I suppose, with, you know, like the normal loss and the normal grief is terrible, but we can do so much to help.

But then when it becomes the tragic, really difficult, coping with loss and grief, we really need to, I suppose, step up to the plate and, you know, think outside the box. And there's lots of support there in that regard. But for me, I suppose it's what not to do is as important as what to do. So, some things to maybe start with. I suppose, for me, it's really important that we engage with the person from the very start. And we, you know, engage with the person very proactively to say, "Look, Caroline, we're really sorry for you in terms of the fact that this has happened and we want to support you in whatever way we can. We'll be guided by you in that regard, you know, let us know what you need." And that's as soon as the grief happens before the person ever . . . you know, like they've just found out or, you know, it's very early in the process. And I think it's very important then that we check back in with them.

So, you know, again, like, obviously, they have the funeral, potentially, you know, and we're talking about grief in terms of loss in that regard. Accepting that there is a broader loss that our employees also have to deal with on occasion. But a few days later, you're going to check in to say, "Look, how do you feel? Do you want to come back? We're very much open to watch you need. We'll help work with you because we want to make your life easier but we want you to know we're here to help in whatever way we can."

And again, you're signposting, you're guiding, and you're letting them decide positive that they need. Because for some people, as I said, they want to return to work tomorrow and for more people they'd say, "Look, can I have another couple of days? It would make a big difference to me." So again, I think you have to take a fluid approach to saying, "Let's see what we can do to help that person."

And once they come back to work, then I think it's really important that we do the cup of tea meeting. And rather than saying, "Would you like to meet?" you know, that we actually, you know, facilitate that meeting. And that can be either with the line manager or with HR, whoever we think is the most appropriate person to say, "Look, I'd like to meet you at 11:00. You know, we'll go for a cup of coffee."

Because we need to acknowledge that the person is going through a challenging time, and just expecting them to come back to work and pick up where they left off is unrealistic. And I suppose it's very important that we, you know, engage with them to let them know we're actually there for them. And, again, I think that can be a thing that afterwards, when we do employee surveys or when we talk to employees long, long time later, they'll always refer back to "God, the time that I lost my loved one, you know, you were particularly good to me because . . . " So, again, it's trying to make sure that you follow the lead from the person, from the employee, rather than saying, "Look in situations like this, this is what we normally do," because there's no such thing as, you know, a normal situation. And again, as I say, you've got to take the guide from them.

But the worst thing you can say, I suppose is, you know, "Look, you're going to be fine. And look, you know, these things happen and, you know, time is a great healer," because people we know don't want to hear that from us. So, again, as I say, I suppose, as you know, I'm a big fan of the questions from . . . having wrote the book called "The Art of Asking The Right Questions." But it's no different in this regard. So it's the open questions to say, "How can we help? Is there anything we can do to make things better for you?" You know, and leaving them, then talk and you empathetically listen, I think is a very important approach.

Lynsey: Yeah, because I suppose a lot of people need to continue working while they're trying to put their lives back together and while they're trying to find their new normal. So it's about a period of adjustment when they return, you know, and supporting them through that challenge and experience.

Caroline: Absolutely, and I suppose there's a big element of, you know, the financial supports and most companies have the number of days we spoke about. But then there's an option of offering the person to take more annual leave, you know, at that time or, you know, and worry about the touching the balance of annual leave at another time. You know, you might be saying, "Oh, look, they've booked the rest of their annual leave now, you know, I don't want to give them anymore."

That's not the time to worry about that. There's, you know, we can worry about that at a later date because to me, I suppose, you know, we need to be very flexible. And, again, the same concept of, you know, people financially could be incurring very significant bills that they didn't anticipate or plan for. So a lot of people need to come back to work rather than want to come back to work. So, again, it's helping people in that regard by being as understanding as we can.

What can an employer do when a work colleague passes away?

Lynsey: Yeah, and we're getting quite a few questions in here. And it is on my list to sort of have a chat about it. But, you know, people are asking about whenever work colleague dies and how as an employer, they can support, you know, the colleagues left behind, I suppose, in that situation.

Caroline: Yeah. So in situations like that, it's the proactiveness of putting it out there and having the discussion. Like it's amazing how we don't necessarily want to talk about uncomfortable situations like grief. And we think by not necessarily putting it on the table that that'll make it better but we know it'll actually make things worse. So in a situation like that, we'll always encourage a team briefing to empathize, to acknowledge, and to also outline what the supports are that are available for people. Because sometimes the death of a loved one or the death of a work colleague can mean that the norm that was there . . . one thing with grief and loss we're learning more about is it's not that it goes away, it's the fact that life starts to build around it as time goes on, rather than grief getting healed or grief going away.

And I suppose for everybody that's different. And again, it's back to counselling is an option that we've offered. And we get people on site for clients, you know, in relation to loss and grief. Because, again, it's one of life's natural, you know, evolutions, but when a work colleague, it's the acknowledgement around that. Like, again, I suppose the very basics around a work colleague. Like some people would say to us, "Look, do we need to allow everybody go to the funeral?" Like, again, we need to support people. If people want to go, we really need to try and operationally facilitate them. And after we need to proactively acknowledge the people might be going through challenging times.

Like we had a very sad situation recently where a work colleague lost a coworker who they were very close to. And as a result, I suppose they felt that, you know, because they were very close in age, they really felt that, "God, I'm next," you know, and it was a really, really challenging time for that employee. But by providing the supports, which are the conversations and the forum to talk, so rather than just offering people the opportunity to talk, that you're actually facilitating it and encouraging it even more and that seems to be very productive. Because if somebody says to you, "Look, I'm okay. I don't want to talk." By having a cup of tea, they can talk about other things. But generally, it will find its way back to talking about the grief or the loss in a very natural way. And again, that's very supportive.

But I think it's important that we prepare the questions of the what you should say and what you shouldn't say because as I say people tend to go, "Look, things will be okay with the passing of time." And that isn't helpful. So remember, line managers want to do the right thing, but they don't necessarily know how to do the right thing. So for me, it's giving them the questions to ask and the questions to follow. And also, a lot of companies now have an employee assistance program, and they would have grief counsellors and, you know, advice on how to deal with and how to cope with loss because there's a lot of common themes in relation to how people deal with loss.

Because even though it is very different, there is typical and very helpful advice in relation to what to do if that situation was to happen. And the other very important thing for me is to remember . . . I try to remember the anniversary first anniversary particularly, and Christmas is particularly challenging for people who have lost somebody. And one of the things, again, we'd advise clients to do and I think it's a lovely idea is to light a candle for people's loved ones, you know, and just, again, to show and acknowledge that we're noticing, you know, that grief continues on and we acknowledge that, you know, it is a challenging time for people.

So the lighting of a candle and a nice saying, or something supportive to say, "Look, we're remembering people who have lost people and loved ones at this time of year and appreciate. It can be challenging. Come talk to us if you'd like us to help in any way we can." Because, again, just even seeing that note and seeing the candle can be very comforting for that employee.

Lynsey: Yeah, and I suppose as well, it's worth remembering that not all organisations are in a position to offer formal employee assistance programs. But it's about maybe then find an alternative agency, so you offer grief support programs and things like that and helping them find the information that they need.

Caroline: Absolutely. And like locally, there's lots of local support that are available. And I suppose, like we spoke about a work colleague, which is one of the very challenging ones. And suicide is one of the other very challenging ones that, you know, comes up unfortunately way too often. And, you know, it's the pro-activeness of supporting somebody who has had somebody belonging to them, you know, basically go through suicide which is terribly tragic. And, again, providing additional support for them because for that employee, you may be saying, "Look, you know, can we do anything to help?" And you don't want to overstep the mark that the boundary of. You must be guided by that employee.

But for me, you're signposting the person and you're basically saying, "Look, you know, there's lots of supports out there. You know, have you engaged with any of them? Do you think that they might be of help to you? And look, now mightn't be the time but if it's okay with you, I might drop you an email after the meeting. And, you know, you might think about them if you feel they are of have helped you." And again, where we're setting the seed to try and help that person because like I started with the whole concept of in times of loss or in times of challenging grief, people need people to help support them.

And at the end of the day, we're dealing with humans and we're dealing with people who are full of emotion. And sometimes they may not see the signpost that you can see when you're objectively helping and advising and signposting them. And it's helpful to check in with them, you know, every so often to kind of help them understand that you haven't forgotten about their loss, or their grief, or the challenging time that they're going through, you know, just because that time, that initial compassionate leave has lapsed.

Guiding your line managers

Lynsey: Yeah, and we've touched on a little bit I suppose throughout, but I think people were very interested on, you know, to talk about guiding your managers. So suppose not only on the impact that the grief of the person can have in the workplace on productivity, motivation, etc. But how they actually handle that person coming back to the workplace and going through that grief process, you know, that grieving process.

Caroline: Yeah, and I suppose for me, the starting point is to say something rather than say nothing. And, you know, I mean, first thing I would always say is acknowledge that this is a very challenging time. And I'm a big fan of the open questions and preparing the questions in advance so that they have the questions because I find if the manager feels they're going into a situation that might be out of their depth, especially when it's full of emotion, that they might get anxious or nervous. So if you outline, look, the first thing you need to do is acknowledge that this is a very challenging time, and we want to do everything we can to support them.

And then start with the look, "How are you doing?" And let them speak. And then the next question for me is, "Can we do anything to make things any bit easier for you?" And again, let the person speak. And, you know, for me, those two key fundamental questions you may be asking more than once and then your signposting the person to maybe offer them the option of saying, "Look, if you need unpaid leave, it's available. If you need paid leave in relation to holidays, it's available. If you need time off as another stage, it's available. You know, if you feel the project you're working on at the moment is too stressful or, you know, it requires too much interaction, then let us know and we will do everything we can to support you at this time." Because we know that we can't expect the person to just come back and be as productive as they were before they went out.

And I think it's important to ideally do that over a cup of tea, or a cup of coffee, or, you know, as informally as possible and as, you know, relaxed environment as possible. And for me, then it's touching basically and saying, "Look, I'll check in with, you know, in two weeks. But if in the meantime, you need me, come talk to me in the intervening period. But we are all there to help and we're all there to do whatever we can for you." So to me, it's that emphasis and nothing replaces face-to-face contact.

So, you know, it's really important that we know that. And I suppose some people when they're experiencing loss, want to tell us loads about the person and the lead up on the situation. We've got, I suppose, follow the lead from the person who is experiencing the loss and avoid the need to say, "Look, it's going to be fine," because that's not going to help, you know. So as much as possible, we're trying to follow their lead.

And we also have to acknowledge that sometimes the best supports, if the person for example, says, "Look, I'm getting panic attacks," or, you know, "I'm really stressed," you know, etc. That we do say, "Look, is it beneficial for me to consider are sending you to the company doctor, because they might be able to signpost you in a better way than I can in relation to your mental health." And because we acknowledge that this is very challenging.

Because I'm very slow for the manager to say, "Look, maybe you should go see a counsellor," you know, like, ultimately, I suppose that the company doctor or the employee assistance program will have expertise in identifying which is the most appropriate route for that person. If they are dealing with more challenging, you know, need of counselling and support. And, again, I think it's important to acknowledge that mightn't be at the outset, that might be later on when, you know, they start to, you know, experience different levels of support. And I just think it's very important that we're open to that and helping as much as possible. But different scenarios require different levels of support.

But the most important thing for me is, we're engaging proactively and helping the person know, you know, we are there to help and in ways the rule book is created for each individual. And in a current environment where we're trying to retain people as much as possible, this is one of the times in people's lives that if we do a good job as employers, not alone because it's the right thing to do from a human perspective, but also from a morale perspective, that we get huge loyalty from our employees. And, you know, it's really worth doing and doing well.

How do you handle bereavement when there is a difficult working relationship?

Lynsey: We've just got a question here, which might be good to answer. "How should you deal with an employee who has always had a difficult relationship with management but who has since suffered a bereavement? Would it look hypocritical to offer support?"

Caroline: Yeah, to me, it is to be honest because at the end of the day, ultimately, whatever else is going on, outside of this grief, this person is a human being and this person to me needs to get support. And if you feel that the line manager doesn't have a great relationship, maybe there's somebody else in the organisation that we can nominate. Maybe there's, you know, the finance person or there is the HR person . . .

Lynsey: Someone from HR. Yeah.

Caroline: Yeah. And some organisations don't necessarily know that , they don't have an HR person. Which, for me, it's the time to step up and show, you know, we are compassionate and we're doing our best for that person. And I think it's important, not alone for the person who's experiencing the issue to see that, but it's also something that the rest of the team needs to see. Because at the end of the day, you know, now as our organisations we spend so much effort talking about mindfulness, minding your mental health, etc.

That we know that this is one of the times is it is challenged most because grieving is not just demanding in terms of, you know, our mental health but it's a lot of people they lose sleep, you know, it's psychologically very challenging. It's emotionally very challenging. It's spiritually very challenging. So there's a number of different factors, you know, that come into play and I suppose it's not something that will just heal as, you know, something else would. So it requires all the more compassion, all the more time, all the more support.

Lynsey: Okay, we do have a couple more questions but unfortunately, we're just running out of time at this time round. And thanks, Caroline, for your thoughts on the subject. And I'm sure we will maybe have a wee look at those questions and answer those maybe in an article or something in 2019. And so don't forget you can contact me directly and if you have any thoughts on future webinars.

And you can contact Caroline and her team at The HR Suite for further information on their services. It's the And if you're an Employment Law Hub subscriber, next week, you will have access to the recording on the website and there'd be a full transcript available in the next couple of weeks. So very finely, thank you very much, Caroline. And thank you all for listening, and Caroline and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you.


This article is correct at 17/12/2018

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Caroline Reidy
The HR Suite

The main content of this article was provided by Caroline Reidy. Contact telephone number is +353 66 710 2887 / +353 86 775 2064 or email

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