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Bereavement can be one of the most devastating things any of us will ever go through, and for many employers, it can be difficult to know how to respond when an employee is bereaved. Recent doctoral research into trauma in the workplace has found that the way suffering and grief is handled at work can have significant psychological and interpersonal implications for both those grieving and their close colleagues.
How employers can help
The way that employers respond to employee bereavement can make or break an individual’s grief experience, how well employees adapt back at work, and their ongoing capacity to contribute to the business. With this in mind, it is important that line managers, HR professionals and colleagues take a compassionate approach to supporting employees through their distress. For example, those who take time to learn about the grief process can find that helps them to empathise with the individual concerned and to ease their transition back to work.
Be aware of the role of work in the coping process
For some people, work is an important coping mechanism, and can be a temporary distraction from their suffering. Grieving individuals may find themselves behaving out of character as they struggle with grief, making it impossible to just ‘slot back’ into their usual role. Remembering that ‘back to work’ does not mean ‘back to normal’, and adjusting your expectations of them accordingly is a crucial part of helping employees through bereavement.
It is important to remember that we are all unique, and therefore we all react differently when faced with bereavement. If line managers are empowered to flex bereavement policies to suit individual circumstances, this can be helpful in securing their positive re-adjustment back at work. This research suggests that the way in which HR bereavement and sickness policies are interpreted shapes the way employees view their employer, and those with a more ‘human’ approach in times of trauma can inspire higher levels of staff loyalty.
Plan for the long-term
Once back at work, it is important that line managers, HR professionals and colleagues remain sensitive to any underlying signs of distress. Individuals appearing to perform as normal on the surface can struggle to psychologically adjust for a long-time after a bereavement. Line managers should look out for hidden signs of distress, and employers should take the opportunity to offer ongoing confidential non-work conversations, whether through confidential discussions with a named member of staff, or through specialist ongoing support.
This article is based on Dr Amy Armstrong's PhD thesis (2014) 'I'm a better manager: A biographic narrative study of the impact of personal trauma on the professional lives of managers in the UK', Aston University.