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When Grief Comes to the Office

There are concrete steps you can take to prepare.

The American population is aging, and so are our workplaces. The average age of a financial advisor in the U.S. is now over 50. This means not only that you need to raise the bar of your grief support skills to accompany clients through their losses, but also that those losses will increasingly hit closer to home, as you face the deaths of co-workers and their family members. 

In other words, considering the realities of today’s changing demographics, it is inevitable that grief will make its presence felt in your office on a regular basis. So let’s look at some concrete steps you can take to prepare for what is sure to occur.

Don’t Ignore What Just Happened

Let’s say a colleague returns to work after experiencing the death of her family member. Instead of tiptoeing around, greet her warmly. Tell her you wish she was returning under better circumstances, but it’s great to have her back. Have a box of tissues and a card on her desk, perhaps with some of her favorite comfort food. Instead of saying, “Come by my office anytime,” say something like, “This is going to be hard for a long time, and we get that. I’ll stop by from time to time just to check in on how it’s going.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Say the Name

Grievers commonly report that by the time the services are over or by a few days after the death, people around them talk about everything and everyone except the person who died, even when it would be natural to include something about him in the conversation. These people are well-intentioned; they are trying not to make her sad or spoil her day.

Yet grieving people usually long to hear their loved one’s name. They need to know that someone else remembers, someone else cares and the name has not been erased even though their physical presence has. Saying the name doesn’t “make them sad;” they already are sad. It just allows them to share the sadness with people who care.

So ask questions like: “What is it like for you now that it’s been two weeks since Alan died?” Or if you also knew the person, share a memory: “I was thinking today about how Alan always livened up our holiday office parties, and it brought a tear to my eye. We will always miss his lighthearted sense of humor.”

Ask Questions That Invite Your Colleague to Share the Experience

When you stop by her desk to check in, ask invitational questions and then follow her lead for how much she wants to talk. She will let you know by her answers whether she wishes to share that day or not, but you have nothing to lose by asking open-ended questions such as: 

  • What do you wish people knew about what this is like for you? 
  • So what kind of a day is it today? Up, down or all over the place?  
  • Tell me something good that happened yesterday or today, and something that wasn’t so good. 
  • How has it been for you to be back in the office? In what ways are we being helpful, and what do you wish we would change?

Evaluate Your Bereavement Leave Policy

Although there is no federal law dictating bereavement leave, most firms give three to five days for an immediate family member. See if you can expand that to at least a week. Also expand the leave policy to any relationship that is very important, rather than to only immediate family. Perhaps an aunt or best friend was more influential than a parent, and their death is devastating to your colleague. Be as compassionate as you can with your firm’s bereavement leave.

Allow for a More Flexible Work Schedule

The grieving employee’s lack of focus and the up-and-down nature of grief may necessitate more flexibility and support for at least a couple of months after a significant death. Helpful steps include the opportunity to work remotely, a more flexible work schedule, additional breaks and a backup person to catch errors. Be particularly mindful of days like a birthday or wedding anniversary, and do something such as taking the grieving person to coffee or bringing in a cake. Acknowledge the void of such a day, while trying to make it a little easier to bear.

When you follow these recommendations, you build cohesion and loyalty in your workforce, and reinforce the very types of relationship skills you want your staff to use with your clients. It’s the right thing to do, on a human level and a professional one. See what you can do today to get started.

Amy Florian is the CEO of Corgenius, combining neuroscience and psychology to train financial professionals in how to build strong relationships with clients through all the losses and transitions of life. 

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