When work feels like a funeral: How to support your colleagues in a time of grieving

by Sonia Checchia, Wheelhouse Group

My parents are from a small village in Italy. When someone from the community passes away, the tradition is to put up simple white posters with black text, or ‘manifesti,’ that include the person’s name and the details you might expect to see on a tombstone. You see the posters in public spaces throughout the town, and they are pasted over after a period of time passes. It’s the obituaries column, but for a town without a newspaper.

The tradition is long held in Italy and continues today, in the age of text messaging and the internet. The ‘manifesti’ are a way not only to share information, but also to honor the deceased, in a collective way. This tradition, coupled with a church service, visits to pay condolences, and the tradition of wearing black—less prevalent than in years past but still part of recent memory—is all part of the bereavement process. When someone from the community passes, there is a time-honored process for mourning.

Lit candles

Due to the pandemic, workplaces all over the world find themselves in mourning. Organizations with an older workforce perhaps are suffering the most. Yet there is no process or tradition that can support a work community through the sadness and grief COVID-19 has caused many organizations. What’s more – we tend to avoid discussions of loss in the workplace.

In recent weeks, a few clients have shared that their work community is grieving privately—quietly and separately—and it’s hard to know what is the right thing to do. There is sensitivity about sharing employee information, and there are also very real legal and structural problems—including employee privacy guidelines. The limitations of remote work further impede our ability to get together as a group and also limit the hallway and watercooler “small talk” that is so critical for peer-to-peer connections.

What can we do? What’s the right way to do it? Simply put, there’s no ‘top five tips for leaders’ that can properly and appropriately recognize our lost colleagues and help an organization heal. The plan, should you create it, will be unique to each organization.

While my perspective is as a communications consultant, I offer guidance on building a plan from an employee engagement standpoint. It is also imperative to consult and involve your company’s Human Resources team as you build yours.

An employee-centered approach will involve three key elements:

One: Leadership Outreach

In the spring of 2020, the early crisis communications were focused on the critical information employees needed to know about health and safety. (What are the masking and social distancing guidelines? How are offices being sanitized?)

Now we are shifting to a deeper discussion. One that speaks to the resilience of leaders and their organizations. How do we honor the memory and service of colleagues we have lost? What does the next normal look like for us, and how will we design it? The best leaders are teeing up these conversations, starting with the colleagues closest to the deceased employees, using all the channels available to them.

Creating a drop-in coffee chat or lunch hour on Zoom, sending hand-written notes to employees’ home addresses, or making time for a “moment of pause” at the start of meetings are all small efforts that go a long way toward connecting with staff.

Two: Community Resources

Employees who are grieving or feeling intensified anxiety due to loss are in need of professional resources. Ensuring your organization has the resources available is one step. Making them easy to access and ensuring employees are using them is another. In large organizations, this effort is a partnership between Human Resources and the communications team.

Now is the time to encourage use of resources such as the Employee Assistance Programs and self-paced trainings on topics such as grief and trauma. Mindful.org includes tips, articles, and podcasts on a variety of topics related to meditation, managing anxiety, and managing stress. What’s Your Grief? is an online community, founded by mental health professionals, that includes resources and webinars.

Three: Group Engagement

Remember my examples from my parents’ hometown. A lot of healing comes from shared group experience. As an organization, consider weekly volunteer mindfulness gatherings or guest speakers/experts on relevant topics.

Where possible, bake these into existing meetings such as all-hands gatherings to encourage broad participation—vs. treating them as stand-alone offerings, which of course will draw a smaller crowd. And remember, as you build that agenda, avoid the urge to pack it full of business topics. It’s critical to leave space for discussion so you can then have the important discussions with the group. Hear what’s on people’s minds and leave space for silence and reflection.

Supporting the work community is top of mind for every good leader, and in tough times even more so. It’s not necessary to have all the answers, but it is possible to arrive at a good plan for your organization by involving the right people. Start by calling together your human resources and communications team. Together, you can provide the outreach that’s needed to support your community through these unprecedented times.

Sonia Checchia, Wheelhouse employee

Sonia Checchia
Sr. Consultant and Stakeholder Engagement & Communications Practice Lead, Wheelhouse Group
Sonia consults in marketing and communications, change management, and internal communications—to ensure her clients’ most important messages are heard. In her 20+ year professional career, she has developed expertise in people programs and has designed and facilitated numerous events and trainings, in person and online.