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Employer Challenge: Helping Returning Employees Cope with COVID-19 Losses

As more and more people become vaccinated and companies start to welcome back staff who have been working remotely after COVID-19 shutdowns, they also will have handle the grief related to employees who’ve died or from those who’ve suffered losses during the pandemic.

coronavirus 4942077 640 smallManagers need to understand that COVID-19 carries with it different types of grief for returning employees who have lost their loved ones and friends and for employees who will never see their co-workers again, Society For Human Resource Management reports.

“COVID grief is disenfranchised grief,” says Joshua Morganstein, a psychiatrist with the American Psychiatric Association. He chairs an APA committee that provides special guidance for its members who care for patients impacted by COVID-19. “They are living with grief they are unable to express through normal outlets,” he adds.

There is a randomness when it comes to COVID-19 deaths, where some young, healthy victims died, while older victims with underlying health conditions managed to survive. Some families also saw the virus claim numerous relatives, leaving those who did not die with survivors’ guilt.

COVID-19, especially early on in the pandemic, also forced many to say their virtual goodbyes to dying relatives or friends via smart phones or laptops if they were even given that opportunity. And many who sought help to deal with their grief/loss often had to seek remote counseling. The more than year-long pandemic also left many living in fear of losing their job or of enduring financial loses, which only complicated the grieving process.

“We are not advocating that leaders become grief counselors,” says Anthony Casablanca, a former HR executive who, with his brother Guy, a funeral director and mortician, launched GriefLeaders. That Indianapolis-area based group helps managers with how to assist grieving employees.

Managers should, however, reach out to impacted workers and be ready to offer help. “If an employee's spouse lost his job and they can't pay their bills, they may need more practical support than emotional," Morganstein says. He urges managers to turn to their HR departments to find ways to help, such as childcare assistance, if needed. “It's important that the managers not feel they have to do it all themselves," he says.

Meghan Stokes, vice president of clinical services for BHS in Baltimore, tells SHRM that top leaders need to emphasize to their managers the importance of recognizing the death. “Create a culture where it's OK not to be OK," Stokes says. “[Grieving] should not be seen as a weakness in the workplace. When you ignore and push [grief] aside and try to plow through, it comes out in more unmanageable ways and bigger problems.”

Employers and managers should show genuine care and empathy and not allow others’ grief to lead to negative impressions of those who have suffered loss, Lori Harris, managing partner of Harris Whitesell Consulting, tells Forbes. “As they journey through their grief, do not take any of their behavior personally, nor allow their behavior to negatively define them,” Harris says. “Once resiliency is restored, engagement returns, and most often, a newfound motivation and drive leads the way.”

And while having a strong grasp of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) is important, it is also crucial for managers to know the grief process does not necessarily follow a linear path, Michelle Braden, president and CEO of Virginia-based MSBCoach, tells Forbes. “Leaders would also benefit from understanding that individuals do not go through these stages in a linear way and may go in and out of each stage multiple times,” she says. “Remember to practice compassion.”

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