Managing Director CPJ Field
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Grieving at work: how to support employees after a bereavement

Grief affects every aspect of an employees’ life, not least their work. Part of creating a more human-focused workplace is about creating a culture where people feel supported in times of bereavement. 

3rd Dec 2019
Managing Director CPJ Field
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Young man crying during work meeting
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Working as a funeral director, you quickly learn that bereavement isn’t really something people get over. It’s more often a case of learning to live with loss and finding a new relationship with the world without the person you loved in it. Every aspect of life can be affected and work has an important role to play in helping people find this new normal.

HR professionals can make a big difference by understanding how to support individuals, communicating this knowledge to the rest of the team and clarifying how roles can be adapted. Beyond the basics it’s about helping to create a culture that delivers the particular blend of stability and consideration that people need as they grieve.

Every bereavement is different, as is how each person uses work while grieving. 

Against this background new research we’ve just published into the support bereaved people are receiving in the workplace reveals a worrying picture.

Interviews with 2,000 recently bereaved UK employees found only 43% of their employers had a bereavement policy, so most didn’t fully understand what they could expect. Many also report a lack of flexibility or adaptation in terms of roles, both after bereavement and in the weeks leading up to an expected death.

As well as the obvious personal cost, failing to effectively support employees going through bereavement is also a staff retention issue.

Our study found that a third of employees became more likely to leave their job after a significant bereavement and that 24% of those wanted to go because they didn’t like how the bereavement was handled.

So where do companies start in creating a culture and policies that supports employees through grief?

Decide what support you can provide

HR staff won’t always be there at the crucial moment, so everyone within an organisation needs training and guidance on everything from how to deal with the immediate reaction to a death and the support and flexibility that can be offered. This should include softer skills and the value of genuine human responses as well as explaining policy. Too many questions can be overwhelming, but there’s much to be said for friendship and small kindnesses.

The first conversation

While a manager may need to ask certain questions when they first hear an employee has suffered a bereavement, it’s useful to keep them to a minimum and be aware of the difficulty of thinking clearly at this stage.

It’s good practice to offer condolences and make it clear that they don’t have to work today, or longer if you’re in a position to say that (which is why it’s so important for everyone to know policies in advance). Find out how the employee wants to be communicated with and ask whether they want the team to be informed. Give the employee control if you can.

Be led by your employee on return to work plans

Every bereavement is different, as is how each person uses work while grieving. For some, work is a welcome distraction, for others it is to be avoided as long as possible. Take the individual’s lead. If someone wants to return to work sooner than expected, try not to judge.

Whether it’s short notice holiday, reduced hours or allowing staff to take a break from customer facing roles, there are lots of practical options for adapting someone’s role.

While it’s true that few people will be able to immediately perform their role at their usual level, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in the workplace. Concentration skills, self-esteem and decision making are just some things that are negatively impacted when a person is grieving, but there’s a lot to be said for letting people work when they want to.

Regular check-ins

Grief can be very isolating, and it lasts longer than most people think. In the immediate aftermath of a death, people can often experience overwhelming support in the form of cards, phone calls and people being physically present.

After the funeral, others return to everyday life and attention can slowly wane. Around the same time the numbness of early grief can be replaced with more difficult feelings. Regular check-ins are needed to see how an employee is coping over the long term.

Consider anticipatory grief in your bereavement policy

Anticipatory grief is the particular kind of grief that people can go through when someone has a life-threatening illness or injury and a death begins to be expected.

Employees tend to lean on their colleagues as well as managers as they grieve, in fact often the latter more so. Everyone within an organisation needs the tools and knowledge of how to talk about grief.

Our research found many people don’t tell their employer when they’re in this situation, with only around a third letting their colleagues and bosses know when a loved one first became seriously ill. It’s particularly important, therefore, to have clear and widely communicated policies for anticipatory grief, as people may well be facing it without your knowledge.

Just as with bereavement, consider how roles can be adapted. For example, can you offer an alternative to customer-facing tasks if someone is struggling with their emotions? Whether it’s short notice holiday, reduced hours or allowing staff to take a break from customer facing roles, there are lots of practical options for adapting someone’s role.

Resist a prescriptive approach

Each bereavement is unique, as is each individual’s relationship with work during the time before and after a death. Some people find it helpful to immerse themselves in work.

Ask people what they want and beware of assumptions. For example, our research found one of the common complaints among bereaved people is being professionally sidelined and excluded from team decisions or challenging projects without being consulted.

However well meaning these assumptions, unasked for exclusions are not helpful and can exacerbate feelings of isolation. Ask the question even if you think you know the answer.

Advise the team on how to talk about death

Death is one of life’s great taboos and people often don’t know what to say, so for fear of awkwardness they end up say nothing at all. This can lead to an uncomfortable atmosphere and, for the person who is grieving, it exacerbates the loneliness and isolation that come with what they’re going through.

Employees tend to lean on their colleagues as well as managers as they grieve, in fact often the latter more so. Everyone within an organisation needs the tools and knowledge of how to talk about grief.

Seek expert advice

Grief is complicated and our society isn’t very good at dealing with it, which makes expert guidance so valuable. ACAS’s best practice guide, Managing bereavement in the workplace, is full of useful case studies and practical advice. If you need more specific consultancy about how your particular organisation or line of work can adapt to the realities of grief, Cruse Bereavement Care do excellent work in this area including this toolkit workshop.

Bereavement policies are as essential as maternity and mental health, but setting out people’s rights in terms of employment is not enough. A successful return to work after bereavement takes careful handling, as the employee faces the almost impossible task of returning to life without their loved one in it.

Interested in this topic? Read Bereavement at work: what is the impact, and what can employers do?

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