Supporting a colleague returning to work after a bereavement

By the time most of us reach manager status, we have ourselves experienced a bereavement and know how all-consuming and emotionally debilitating it can be. Our own experience doesn’t, however, automatically qualify us to know how to best welcome a colleague back after they’ve been away on compassionate leave.

For managers, this can feel like a balancing act between adhering to HR policies and human sensitivities. It can be hard to strike this balance right, but doing so is imperative, as what you don’t want is a valuable employee who ends up feeling unsupported or under nurtured and decides to make their leave permanent as a consequence.

Have open conversations

No one likes talking about death and grief, but having an open yet sensitive conversation is critical for understanding what your colleague needs to help them in their reintegration into the workplace.

Questions you’ll need answers to include:

How much do they want other team members to know about their absence?

What can you do to help them best ease back in, e.g., organise a phased return, adjust their working hours, and share their workload?

How are they really feeling? Don’t just go through the motions of asking tick-box questions. The human question “Howe you really?” shows their feelings really matter to you. Let them know you’re there to talk at any point about how their return is going.

Ensure good communication

Talking about grief can be emotional and exhausting for someone going through it, so help them out by not making them repeat the conversation they’ve had with you with other managers. Do this by ensuring their responses are communicated to those who need to know. If there’s a change of management, make sure you do the legwork to ensure those who have to be are kept abreast of the situation. This avoids awkward and painful conversations down the line.

Make sure your compassionate leave policy is fit for purpose

Everyone experiences grief differently. Some are able to compartmentalise it from their work and welcome the distraction work affords them, while others find it impossible to focus. This all makes putting in place a compassionate leave policy extremely difficult for organisations that may be worried about ensuring equality and setting a precedent.

There’s no ‘right’ amount of time off. Some may need to take extended leave, whereas others may not want any time off at all. Both situations can be tricky for a manager and an organisation to deal with. The key is to offer as much flexibility as you can. For many, returning to normal, which includes going back to work, can be a relief. Just be sure to keep an eye on them when they return to check for any signs they might be struggling.

Keep the conversation going

Don’t assume that once someone returns to work, it will be business as usual for them. Grief can change a person irrevocably, and it often has a nasty habit of creeping back up on us when we think we’re coping. Check in with returning colleagues to ask them how they’re doing and whether any further adaptations to working hours, tasks, or location could help.

If a colleague insists they’re fine, even though you suspect otherwise, don’t be tempted to brush the matter under the rug. Doing the right thing can mean having to have a tender conversation. If the quality of their work is suffering, you will have to be open about that, but do so in a way whereby you’re exploring options together, such as suggesting they utilise any leave or consider lightening their level of responsibility, even if only for a time.

Don’t be scared to say what’s on your mind, but just make sure you’re leading with empathy and not your own personal agenda.

Invest in training

Training is widely available that better equips managers and staff on the ground for dealing with compassionate matters affecting colleagues. Educating yourself and your workforce can be invaluable when it comes to welcoming team members back to work. If you get it wrong, your colleague won’t forget, and it will knock their confidence and affect their contribution.

As a manager, there’s a lot of pressure on you to get it right, and this is where external training can make all the difference. Don’t shy away.

It can be difficult to know what to say to a colleague who has experienced a recent loss. Some people will go to the extreme of swerving the person all together just to avoid any perceived awkwardness! That’s not helpful, and as a manager, you do have to confront the situation.

While there’s no ideal thing to say, just remember that whatever you say can’t be worse than what’s already happened. Acknowledging the loss can make people feel supported. Simply saying, ‘It’s good to see you back. I’m here if you want to go for a coffee’ is sometimes all that’s needed. Karen Hibbert is the Compassionate Communities Lead at Keech Hospice. Care.