On Sept. 7, 2023, I delivered a presentation at the 2023 National Symposium on Traumatic Loss and Grief Support near Cleveland, Ohio. The event was sponsored by Cornerstone of Hope, a wonderful bereavement support center headquartered in Northeast Ohio.

My session, titled “Grief in the Workplace: Insights from Organizational Psychology,” summarized the most recent thinking from my academic field regarding the role organizations play in something that affects—or will affect—nearly every single human: death-related grief.

In addition to being an nearly universal human experience, death-related grief is also expensive; according to The Grief Recovery Institute, it may cost organizations more than $75 billion every year.

Curiously, though, it’s a topic that organizational psychologists have not studied much to date. Yet some in the field have begun to take interest. For instance, I attended one related session at the 2023 annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. The session, titled, “The Mourning After: Exploring Bereavement in the Workplace,” featured four presentations that discussed how employees disclose pregnancy loss, how bereavement affects job performance, the current state of bereavement leave benefits, and how employees make decisions about bereavement leave. The speakers—Diane Bergeron of the Center for Creative Leadership, Mark Smith of the Society for Human Resource Management, Stephanie Gilbert of Cape Breton University, and Jacquelyn M. Brady of San Jose State University—addressed these topics while also highlighting how much more research this area requires.

I never thought I would be interested in this topic, but I have been interested for years in how leaders, teams, and organizations navigate adversity—so in a way, I have been studying similar areas. And following the tragic death of my 7-year-old son in November 2020, I have come to experience grief personally while also thinking about it deeply from the perspective of an employee and of a social scientist.

So what did I talk about?

Not much research exists that directly investigates how grief plays out in the workplace, how organizational leaders should respond, or related topics (for a brief list, see the end of this article).

But that doesn’t mean that organizational psychology has nothing to offer. So in my presentation, for which the audience was primarily professionals who support grievers in various ways, I focused first upon the importance of human organizations in shaping our life experiences.

In so doing, I discussed:

  1. What those who support grievers should know about the workplace and bereavement

  2. How the workplace can function as a source of support

  3. What helps grievers navigate the workplace

Below I provide a quick summary of each of those areas of focus.

What those who support grievers should know about the workplace and bereavement

The average bereavement leave period in the United States is 3 to 5 days. Clearly, dealing with grief can be a process that takes much longer than that. In my case of navigating the aftermath of my son’s death, what our grief counselors told us was rather accurate: Acute grief lasts 2 to 3 years, chronic grief lasts a lifetime.

Grief can have a pronounced influence on work in various ways. Work performance can suffer, and the social context of work can be thrown out of whack. Grief can be isolating. It also, as I wrote once in a poem, “stumbles awkwardly in public.”

The workplace can be both a stressor and a source of resilience. What seems to be clear is that the level of relationship quality one has with one’s supervisor and coworkers really matters.

How the workplace can function as a source of support

One of the strongest findings from organizational psychology is that people tend to form beliefs about the degree to which their work organizations care about their well-being and value their contributions. And when people perceive that their work organizations do care about their well-being and value their contributions, they have some of their social needs met and they feel obligated to reciprocate to the organization by working hard and not quitting.

These principles, it seems reasonable to assume, would apply to an employee who is grieving the death of someone close to them.

As such, organizations that foster a fair environment, treat people with dignity and respect, and have supportive supervisors can be of tremendous support to the bereaved.

What helps grievers navigate the workplace

I was fortunate when I delivered this presentation to have a highly engaged audience—and this part of the discussion brought out many comments and questions. The vast majority of the comments were in the category of what I’d call, “organizations behaving badly.”

Namely, some research suggests four categories of best practices for organizations with regard to how the treat a bereaved employee who is returning to work. But most of the people in my audience were not fortunate to have experienced these best practices.

These best practices come in the form of what researcher Stephanie Gilbert and her colleagues labeled the “C.A.R.E.” model.

I discussed their findings in more detail during the presentation, but the basic idea is that organizations can best support people who are returning to the workplace following a death-related loss by (1) fostering supportive, ongoing, two-way communication; (2) considering job redesign, flexible scheduling, and coworker support as part of the accommodation process; (3) providing simple, kind, and supportive recognition of the loss; and (4) providing emotional support that is both empathetic and compassionate in content and tone.

These four elements provide managers with at least a starting point for how to approach a bereaved employee.

Death is a universal human experience. Managers will almost certainly deal with bereaved employees at some point, so it makes sense that they think through how they might handle such instances beforehand.

For many of us, our work organizations are a big part of how we experience life. The people we work with—our supervisors, our coworkers, and our direct reports—can be important elements of our human interaction. Those people and organizations matter, in good times and in bad.

And I’m convinced there’s always room for continually doing better.

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References and for further reading

Grief in the Workplace: Presentation Slides
1.19MB ∙ PDF file


Download Ben Baran’s slides from his presentation at the 2023 National Symposium on Traumatic Loss and Grief Support.


For more about Ben’s son, Vincent, and the Vincent William Baran Day of Service: click here

Read a related article from Ben (link below)

Bergeron, D. M. (2023a). Monday mourning: A call for the study of bereavement in the workplace. Journal of Management Inquiry, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1177/10564926231180416

Bergeron, D. M. (2023b). Time heals all wounds? HRM and bereavement in the workplace. Human Resource Management Review, 33(2), 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2022.100931

Fisk, G. M. (2023). The complexity and embeddedness of grief at work: A social-ecological model. Human Resource Management Review, 33(2), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2022.100929

Gilbert, S., Mullen, J., Kelloway, E. K., Dimoff, J., Teed, M., & McPhee, T. (2021). The C.A.R.E. model of employee bereavement support. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 26(5), 405–420. https://doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000287

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

Levesque, D. A., Lunardini, M. M., Payne, E. L., & Callison-Burch, V. (2023). Grief in the workplace: Challenges and solutions. American Journal of Health Promotion, 37(3), 426–429. https://doi.org/10.1177/08901171221145217d

Tehan, M., & Thompson, N. (2013). Loss and grief in the workplace: The challenge of leadership. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 66(3), 265–280. https://doi.org/10.2190/OM.66.3.d

Wilson, D. M., Punjani, S., Song, Q., & Low, G. (2021). A study to understand the impact of bereavement grief on the workplace. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 83(2), 187–197. https://doi.org/10.1177/0030222819846419