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Condolences, compassion and grief from afar

Supporting your employees during COVID-19

Health and Benefits|Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Rachael McCann and Lydia Jilek | April 6, 2020

The emotional wellbeing and importance of social connection are paramount to supporting employees – as are HR policies.

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Helping employees deal with bereavement issues

This piece was written to bring to employers the reality of what their employees will face as they address bereavement issues in weeks and months ahead and what they as leaders will also need to face themselves. It is through the lens of workplace dignity – and with an eye on “how can you help” amid COVID-19.

Within the last week and within one work team, two team members (of a 50-person team) lost parents. Both deaths were non-COVID-19 related and completely unexpected. I shared this with a colleague, who told me of another colleague with a parent who died due to complications of COVID-19, and his sister who transported her to the hospital now has tested positive and is having symptoms.

These parents died without their loved ones with them, and in all instances, traditions like sitting Shiva, holding calling hours, wakes, memorial services, choosing a funeral date and traditional burial cannot happen – or are prohibited. These employees have no idea how they are supposed to go through the rites of death that they personally observe or how they can proceed to treat their loved ones with the respect and dignity they deserve, to mourn and celebrate life.

We first watched Italy as a preview of what was to come – an emergency national law has banned civil and religious ceremonies, including funerals. Priests are permitted to say a gravesite prayer with the deceased’s loved ones who are not sick or infected. In other areas of the country, technology (such as iPads) is used to view last rites and “drive by” processions and prayers are held for the deceased’s loved ones.

Now we see confirmed and hospitalized cases, beds desperately needed and the Federal Emergency Management Agency sending New York City refrigeration trucks (85 at the time this blog was written) to serve as make shift morgues.

Employers are starting to hear stories of loss of their own employees and are challenged with how to support them through unimaginable hardships. The emotional wellbeing and importance of social connection are paramount to supporting employees – as are the supporting HR policies.

Focus on wellbeing and bereavement policies

Questions your employees are asking themselves:

  • Can I reach my loved one in time to say goodbye?
  • Will they let me in the facility to see them or is it under quarantine?
  • If I am able to see my loved one, am I taking away personal protective equipment from a provider?
  • If I cannot be there prior to passing, will a provider feel safe or be able to hold a phone up to my loved one to hear my voice?
  • Am I going to get infected by the virus if I see my loved one before they pass – risking further illness or death of for myself or others?
  • Is it wrong to be fearful and stay away to protect myself and others?
  • How do I plan after-death traditions?
  • Will the choice of cremation be made for our family out of public safety and space requirement?
  • When am I able to follow those traditions, rites, celebration, etc. and who can attend?
  • What time off do I need, and what flexibility will I need based on following public safety requirements?
  • How do I get closure, and can I even take time to grieve if I’m working from home or my job requires me to go to a physical worksite?
  • How do I communicate this to friends who may be experience loss of their own?

Underlying all of this – how can we, as employers, help employees grieve? It feels as if grief may be broken into several stages: the actions that come with the death itself – either cremation or burial, and the selection of caskets, urns and the like (now done remotely) – with the grief and time required there; and then later (and there is stress that comes from not knowing when “later” will be), a gathering to celebrate the individual’s life.

In traditional times, these generally happen in succession, and individuals can begin to have some sense of closure. Even the process of sitting with a funeral director (or like coordinator) and making selections can be a form of informal therapy. Funeral directors have experience helping individuals deal with loss and can help with navigating emotions. They can also provide guidance for individuals who may need to deal with challenging family situations – and even to be a shoulder to cry on. These resources are not available in the same way today – either because of social distancing – or perhaps compounded by volume – as we hear of in some of the hardest hit areas of Europe.

Once immediate needs are met, many families will be in limbo – unable to make plans to celebrate the life of their loved one. There is a natural desire to come together – to share stories, laugh and cry – that is stalled right now. This will cause significant stress and may impact employees in many ways.

Another factor to consider is that sadly the number of deaths that an organization will experience over the next several months – either directly or indirectly – is likely to spike. This will have a direct impact on employee morale and productivity, both in the short and long term.

How do we navigate these challenges?

Unchartered territory is an understatement. But there are things you can do to support employees:

  1. 01

    Model empathy and compassion:

    • Be open and honest about how grief now is different – it will impact everyone, and even if we don’t personally know someone who has died, we are all experiencing a baseline level of loss.
      • We all know someone who is personally impacted by COVID-19, a front-line health care provider, someone who has tested positive, someone who has foregone care as their health care was determined to be elective, someone struggling with the possibility or reality of losing health care, and the like.
    • If an employee experiences a loss, encourage them to take time now to grieve, even if they are sheltering in place:
      • Employees may feel that they cannot or should not take time to grieve if they are working at home.
      • For employees that may be considered essential or are still going to a worksite for other reasons, ensure that they understand their organization’s bereavement policy and how they can, or should, take time away to mourn. And if there are modifications to this now, be clear about these and how the employees will be accommodated after the critical period has ended.
    • Keep in mind that everyone is experience grief right now – grief about loss of connections, compounded with a host of concerns (fears) – and the loss of loved ones is exacerbating this even further.
  2. 02

    Ensure the basics are in place and updated for today’s relevancy:

    • Have clear policies and resource guides that can quickly be shared with employees so there is both timeliness and consistency in message.
    • Be sure that your leadership team can easily access resources for crisis counseling and consider it a part of your business continuity planning.
    • Simply sending flowers can help employees know that their organization cares and can help with the grief process.
    • Revisit and update (as needed) the bereavement policy to:
      • Evaluate dates offered (per the 2020 Willis Towers Watson Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey the average days allotted is three days). Historical pre-COVID-19 policies have not been an area of focus or thoughtful of time required.
      • Remove any requirements to take the paid bereavement days off within a specific time frame. Now is not the time for such restrictions.
      • Extend the policy to include other relationships, including loss of pregnancy; treat employees with respect and dignity.
      • Remove requirements to provide documentation of the death.
  3. 03

    Remind employees of what you have in place today to support them:

    • Sense of community:
      • Highlight existing employee or business resource groups (ERGs/BRGs) and other groups that reflect company focus on community – or suggest the formation of new resources groups to help address bereavement and grief. Loneliness more than ever is a concern, and these groups can provide community during a very isolating time. Consider establishing a chat board or other forum – even a standing Zoom meeting – for employees who need support.
        1. Consider installing or hiring a moderator who can guide the discussion and flag any potentially concerning statements.
        2. Acknowledge that, despite this pandemic and people dying, life will go on, and that those left to mourn on their own and will likely feel a sense of guilt and despair.
    • Emotional wellbeing:
      • Promote employee assistance programs and work with your provider to support the five stages of grief: 1) denial and isolation, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, 5) acceptance.
      • Make telebehavioral visits accessible through the health carrier offering (while setting expectations that telemedicine/telebehavioral resources are severely taxed).
      • Continue messages related to the importance of wellbeing, including programs and resources offered through health carriers and niche vendors (e.g., stress, resiliency, physical exercise).
      • Add emotional wellbeing as a standing agenda item for meetings and having leaders share their strategies.
    • Resources available through non-health related programs:
      • Legal support either as a part of a welfare program service (e.g., life policy) or a stand-alone benefit (legal or life plans frequently offer these). Example of services include:
        1. Will preparation
        2. Estate planning
        3. Power of attorney (e.g., medical, durable)
    • Advertise existing voluntary benefit programs that provide a sense of security and consider those that are not offered.

Perhaps most importantly, senior leadership must model wellbeing activities and be open about their fears, struggles, concerns and actions. It is easy to joke or gripe about the challenges of working while also managing “school” for children or sharing photos of pets goofing off during work hours, but employees are craving honest conversations from leadership about their struggles and actions in these uncharted times. They are craving to be asked, “Truly, how are you doing? How is your family? How are you holding up?” They also need to hear and see evidence that it is expected that they take time away from work. And it needs to be authentic.

With thanks to contributors: Kezia Charles, Amy DeVylder, George Fischer, Julie Stone and Jeff Tsan.


Senior Director, Health and Benefits,
NA Inclusion and Diversity Leader

Lydia Jilek
Senior Consultant, Health and Group Benefits

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