Q: My research assistant’s husband died suddenly. I'm not sure what to say to her when she comes back to work, or how to direct the rest of the team. What if she cries in the lab? I want to be sensitive, but we are working on a challenging project and I need the team to be focused.
My guess is she is most definitely going to cry in the lab, so I suggest buying extra tissues. Typical bereavement leave is only three days, but even if it’s three weeks, has she had enough time to completely recover from this crippling shock? No, she has not. I’m glad you recognize this.
The question then becomes, how do I respond when she cries? Or stares vacantly into space? Or just walks out of the lab? Her emotions are going to come out in some way. Either she will process them externally, with some tears, or she may bottle them up and explode later.
As much as crying makes us uncomfortable, it is a necessary catharsis. The truth is an employee returning to work after bereavement can be both emotional and productive. We often think emotion stifles productivity but it’s actually the other way around. Emotion leads to healing. Trust me, it’s much better for her to process her grief now rather than bottle it up and explode or fall apart in a few months.
Your role as a manager for any employee returning to work after bereavement is to support your team professionally. Show that support by welcoming her back with the same kind of relationship you had when she left. If you have a personal relationship, where you’ve always joked around with each other, then you could hand her a giant box of tissues and say you’ve got five more waiting at her desk.If you have a more professional relationship, then just be up front about your support. Simply say, “I appreciate you being here, if there’s anything you need I want you to feel comfortable coming to me.”
The key is to acknowledge her situation in an appropriate way. If you act like nothing happened, then you minimize a huge event in her life. Maybe you can share some of your own experiences in being emotional at work. At minimum, make sure she knows that if she need a moment to recover herself, she shouldn’t hesitate to take it.
As a manager, you have an incredible opportunity here to build a stronger relationship with the whole team. Not only will the bereaved employee appreciate your support, but her colleagues who are watching will realize that you will do whatever it takes to back up your team.
Now, if the crying and distractions become a long-term thing, that’s a different issue. Any time you have projects to be completed and a team member can’t meet those deadlines (for whatever reason), you have to adapt for that. Find a resource to backfill until she can get back in the game. The project can’t be pushed aside to meet this person’s need, but you can find ways to meet this person’s need while also getting the project done.
And meanwhile, definitely stock up on office tissues. I also recommend chocolates.