Bereavement and Return to Work

Returning to work after the death of a loved one is rarely a smooth transition. The cognitive demands of the workplace, the words of sympathy from coworkers serving as a reminder of the loss, and the crossover of the home/private life into the workplace can all contribute to making what was once a daily routine into an ongoing struggle.

Existing Policies in Place for Bereaved Employees

According to the Employment Standards Act (Ontario Ministry of Labour, 2000) bereaved employees are entitled to up to 10 days of unpaid, job-protected bereavement leave*. For some individuals this will be more than enough time or just right, but for others it won’t be nearly enough. Apart from this unpaid leave, how employers choose to support bereaved employees is largely up to the discretion of the individual workplace.

Why Bereavement in the Workplace is a Significant Issue

Most employers have not made workplace bereavement a priority issue, yet this underemphasized subject can affect “employer’s cost of benefits, workers’ productivity, absentee and presenteeism rates” (Pawlecki, 2010). Moreover, if the bereaved employee works in a leadership role, their potential inattention to work due to grief may have consequences that affect the workplace as a whole (Tehan & Thompson, 2013).  

How to Support Bereaved Employees at Work

There is currently a limited body of research on best practices for return to work for bereaved employees. However, the available research does agree that specific policies and practices need to be put in place to support the employee. Below are the most frequently cited suggestions that can be found in the existing literature:

1. Communication training for managers: Conversations around loss and grief are difficult to engage in if you haven’t had had any experience with them in the past (Pawlecki, 2010). Hiring an external consultant to provide training to managers around how to have those difficult conversation will empower them to actually have the knowledge and confidence to carry them out.

2.  Compassionate leave and gradual return to work: Letting employees know right away that they can take some time off provides them with a sense of relief, but the stress of knowing that they have to come right back to the same demands can outweigh this relief. Ensure that compassionate leave is followed by a gradual return to work process, for example, starting part time and working up to full time hours (Charles-Edwards, 2001).

3. Keeping in Mind Individual Differences in the Grieving Process: Some people will want to return to work right away because it makes them feel good to do something they are skilled at. Furthermore, the workplace might be the only place where they are not surrounded by reminders of their loss. Others will not be fully ready to return for an extended period of time and may require more time off (Hazen, 2008).

In addition to these time-related differences, we have to keep in mind that grief can manifest in many different ways.  For example, someone can be angry or irritable after the death of a loved one. Just because someone doesn’t appear sad doesn’t mean that they aren’t grieving (Maxim & Mackavey, 2005).

4. Determine Boundaries and Confidentiality: It is helpful to talk to the coworkers of the employee who has experienced the loss, to inform them of what has happened so they may provide support accordingly. However, make sure you establish with the bereaved employee what information they wish to be shared and with whom so that you do not cross any lines if they person is not ready to share (McGuiness & Williams, 2014).

What are some of the challenges you foresee in supporting the bereaved employee in their return to work? Do you think 10 days of compassionate leave is enough? What else can be done to make this difficult process easier?  How are bereaved employees supported at your workplace? 

*Note: the Employment Standards Act does not apply to all workers, click here for more information.

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Charles-Edawrds, D. (2001). Responding to bereavement at work. Bereavement Care, 20(3), 41-42. doi: 10.1080/02682620108657529

Hazen, M. A. (2008). Grief and the workplace. Academy of Management Perspectives, 22(3), 78-86. doi: 10.5465/AMP.2008.34587996

Maxim L. S., & Mackavey, M. G. (2005). Best practices regarding grief and the workplace. The Journal of American Academy of Business,6(1), 110-116. Retrieved from

McGuiness, B., & Williams, S. (2014). Handling bereavement in the workplace - a guide for employers. Bereavement Care, 33(3), 111-112. doi: 10.1080/02682621.2014.980986

Pawlecki, J. B. (2010). End of life: A workplace issue. Health Affairs, 29(1), 141-146. doi: 10.1377/hitaff.2009.0481