Bereavement at work: what is the impact, and what can employers do?
Although it’s a fact of life that we will all experience bereavement, some of which will be during our working lives, it is an area often overlooked or poorly supported by employers.
The loss of a close relative is devastating and will have a significant impact on an employee for a long period of time. This impact will be emotional and can also manifest itself in physical symptoms.
Employees often fear returning to work, unsure of how their colleagues will treat them. In addition, grieving people often suffer with low-confidence and self-esteem, so often employees find themselves doubting their ability.
A major loss is often a trigger to reassess priorities: work can suddenly become much less important.
Practical implications can also mean that an employee needs to pick up more practical tasks at home.
Children will also be a major concern to an employee: when a child loses a relative, parents will need to support the child as well as deal with their own grief.
Family and friends are generally supportive at the time of death but once the funeral is over this support tends to fall away.
This is when bereaved people really start to grieve and feel the loss most keenly and so can feel isolated, lonely and easily become withdrawn and depressed. This is when they need the most support.
Symptoms of grief
Grief is a very long process with several different phases. There are several different models, the best known of which is the Kubler-Ross Grief cycle.
This includes five phases: Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, Acceptance. There is no standard timescale for each phase and people frequently oscillate between phases.
Although people may be familiar with these five stages, it’s much more complex in practice. Those that specialise in bereavement (such as our nurses) know what other signs to look out for that typically happen at key timeframes following a death.
This can include deep shock at the beginning: signs that we look out for are things like deep sighing and indecision. Those that aren’t specialists may not know that this is part of grief.
After a couple of months, there may be other signs such as extreme fatigue, inability to make decisions, lack of motivation, irrational anger or aggression and insecurity.
Later, depression, apathy and often a loss of identity can cause difficulties.
People often need support to move to a position of acceptance and regain their interest in work.
Impact for employers
It is important that employers understand these signs and give employees the support and understanding that they need.
The most effective approach for employers is to acknowledge the employee’s loss and ask how they and the company can help. Often people really value flexibility in working hours, location to suit their personal circumstances.
Changes in the workplace such as organisational structures or job role changes can have a major detrimental effect on a grieving employee, so this also needs to be handled carefully and in discussion with the employee.
There is a high propensity for absence amongst grieving employees. Therefore as well as being the right thing to do in line with the duty of care, providing appropriate support for a grieving employee makes good business sense too.
Those organisations that have a good bereavement policy in place can make an enormous difference to the bereaved employee, their colleagues and the business as a whole, thereby increasing loyalty and engagement from all staff.
According research carried out by ComRes for the National Council for Palliative Care and Dying Matters:
- 56% of people said they would consider leaving their job if their employer did not provide proper support if someone close to them died.
- Almost a third of people who had been bereaved in the past five years who were in a job at the time said that they were not treated with compassion by their employer.
A death of a colleague in the workplace will have a major impact on the colleagues and business.
Employees can suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In addition to the support outlined above, there is often a need for some form of workplace therapy such as group trauma counselling and often working together raising funds or a memorial event can be really cathartic and healing for colleagues.
Everyone grieves differently. A bereavement policy should include a good support service tailored to the needs of each individual.
In our experience, employees prefer a service which is provided independently from their employer: they often don’t want to admit all their worries and concerns to their employer. .
Apart from long-term emotional support which can be a life-line to a bereaved person, a wide range of practical help can also be provided, for example: decisions regarding care facilities for a parent, supporting children in their grief, adjusting to personal circumstances, preparing to return to work.
Charities and self-help groups can be very beneficial; a good support service will identify those that are appropriate, such as:
Some examples of support
When a police officer was killed on duty, this obviously had a huge impact on his colleagues. As well as his family, RedArc supported several of his fellow officers individually, who were very traumatised by the loss of a colleague and friend.
Our nurses gave one-to-one long-term telephone support, literature and organised specialist face-to-face counselling. Most were able to remain at work; peer support and fundraising initiatives also really helped at this time.
We recently supported a lady who lost her baby. Her employers were very supportive and they arranged for her to have the service. She was given the telephone number to call her nurse when she felt she was able to talk.
The nurse provided lots of literature to help her, regular telephone and email support. Communication had broken down between the lady and her husband; as a couple, they were grieving in different ways.
We organised bereavement counselling for them as a couple, allowing them to support each other through this painful time. The nurse also helped the lady prepare for return to work and have discussions with her employer about what would help her.
She returned to work after seven months on an agreed phased return, in a less pressured role, on reduced hours, and after three months she was able to return to full-time hours.
How employers can help
Employers need to be more aware of the impact of bereavement on their employees and put policies and support processes in place. Training for managers is very beneficial and this can be provided by charities such as Child Bereavement UK.
Support services are available directly or can be offered as an added-value service by employee assistance programmes, protection insurance (income protection, critical illness, life), private medical insurance and cashplans.
However, employers should be cautious because the content of support services offered can vary significantly. Some services can be a very light touch helpline whereas others can provide long-term support from a dedicated nurse who can assess and organise the most appropriate face-to-face therapy or counselling
Continuity and content of support is very important, particularly bearing in mind the long-term and changing nature of grief.
Christine Husbands is managing director of RedArc, a service that provides personal nurse advisers for people experiencing illness, disability, trauma or bereavement.
Christine spent the initial part of her career in financial roles and she has held several board positions in Financial Services and is a Chartered Director. During her time...