Clinical Manager Bupa EAP
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How managers can support employees with bereavement

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Most of us will come across employees who are experiencing the loss of a loved one during our careers and, while there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ set of rules for dealing with this, there are certain steps managers can take to ensure their response is sensitive and empathetic, as well as remaining professional.

28th Sep 2020
Clinical Manager Bupa EAP
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Covid-19 is the biggest global crisis that we’re likely to see in our lifetime, affecting people personally, collectively and professionally. Sadly, as the pandemic has progressed, more people will be dealing with grief. During the first few months of lockdown, our EAP team at Bupa have seen a 40% increase in businesses asking for advice and guidance on how to support their teams with bereavement and loss.

While managers should try and signpost to support, it’s important that you do not try to tell employees what they should be feeling or doing.

If one of your employees loses a loved one, it can be difficult to know how to help, especially if they’re still working from home. Providing emotional and practical support at this time will help them, their family and other colleagues within your organisation, however. In this article I will outline some key points for managers to consider that will help them to understand their employee’s needs while they are experiencing grief.

Understanding the five stages of grief

The five stages of grief describe how people emotionally come to terms with their loss. This is not a linear process and people can dip in and out of these stages. It is important to recognise that each person grieves in a very different way and at different speeds.

How a person grieves will depend on many factors and there is no right or wrong way. While managers should try and signpost to support, it’s important that you do not try to tell employees what they should be feeling or doing. I’ve listed the five stages below and their key components:

Denial

This is often the first stage of grief. It helps people to emotionally survive the loss. During this stage, we are in a state of shock. People often wonder how they can go on, if they can go on, and why they should go on. Denial and shock help us to adjust to and cope with the emotional enormity of the loss.

Anger

We may be angry with the person who left us, or we may feel angry with ourselves. We might find ourselves shouting at people or showing irritation at everything, including minor inconveniences. This stage can happen at any time, even after going through a period of acceptance.

Bargaining

At some point, we may find ourselves trying to reclaim what we have lost. This stage helps us cope.

Depression

In this stage it is common to notice changes in appetite or sleep patterns, unexplained aches and pains. It is also common to cry a lot as we deal with our loss.

Acceptance

The acceptance stage is where we are ready to start rebuilding our life and invest in other attachments and relationships. Complete acceptance brings peace, but often, this stage is never complete. Instead, we might feel sad during death anniversaries or angry.

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Creating a supportive workplace

It’s important to create a safe environment at work where employees can openly talk about their emotions, whether that’s in the office or virtually. Try to create opportunities for individuals to speak in confidence about their grief and remind them of all the support available.

Be aware of the role of work in their coping process. For some people, work is an important coping mechanism. It can be a distraction, especially in the early stages of grief – some people find that it provides some normality and routine.

It’s especially important for managers to understand that a quick return to work doesn’t mean it’s ‘business as usual’. Limit your expectations of these individuals and don’t assume that they’ll be able to perform at the same level straight away. Individuals grieve at different speeds and in different ways. It may be weeks, months or even years before an individual is able to perform at the level they once did.

Talking to an employee about bereavement

Talking to an employee who is grieving can be difficult. You might be worried about saying the wrong thing and making things worse, or you could be unsure of what to say – but your support could be highly valued by someone who is struggling.

Knowing what to say to a colleague who is experiencing grief is often hard, but it’s important that as a manager you do speak to your team member. Be empathetic to show your support and make them feel less anxious. Here are some things you can do:

  • Express your condolences.
  • Encourage them to take some time off.
  • Ask how they would like you to keep in touch and when the best time for you to contact them is.
  • Remember, they may not want to be contacted much, especially during the first few days.
  • Ask them if they’re open to being contacted by other colleagues.
  • Ask what information they would like you to share with their colleagues.
  • Be prepared for them to be upset and tearful.
  • Allow plenty of time and space for them to speak.
  • Signpost to key contacts and services for support.
  • Prepare for the conversation.

What not to say

  • ‘How are you doing?
  • ‘They’re in a better place’.
  • ‘I know how you feel’.
  • ‘Be strong’.

What to say instead

  • ‘It’s tough for you right now’.
  • ‘I’m sorry you’re suffering’.
  • ‘I can imagine how you’re feeling’.
  • ‘I’m sorry that you’re going through this’.

Show your support

Companies will have policies in place for bereavement, which may have been updated for the current situation. Understanding these policies will help provide the right guidance.

Many companies may also have trained staff members, as well as faith-based or other employee support groups who are able to speak with an employee. They may also have EAPs offering confidential advice and support. It is common that employees may not want to share their feelings with their manager or members of the same team, so make sure you encourage them to use these services. It’s also important that as a manager you don’t forget to take care of yourself.

Bupa has created a Manager's Guide to Bereavement which is available for download now. 

Interested in this topic? Read Grieving at work: how to support employees after a bereavement.

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