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Supporting bereaved employees: an employer’s duty

There are legislative measures in place to ensure that employers fulfil their legal duty to bereaved team members, however there are additional ways employers can show empathy and support during the most difficult times of people’s lives.

12th Jan 2021
Founding Partner JourneyHR
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Two business colleagues comforting their depressed female coworker who is crying.
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Bereavement is one of the most difficult things any of us will ever go through and one in ten people in the UK will likely be affected by it at any one time. While some employees are able to cope reasonably well at work, others might struggle to manage their loss, with grief having an impact on their productivity, work, and relationships with their team or managers.

Sensitive managers and open conversations can make all the difference to employees during their time of need.

As an employer, it can be really difficult to know how to respond and make sure that the impact on both the individual and the organisation is minimised, so it’s important to plan ahead.

Duty of care

Having a compassionate and supportive approach to bereavement demonstrates a company values its employees, helping build loyalty, reduce absence, and retain a productive workforce.

Companies can of course differ in terms of size and culture – what will work as a policy for one, might not for the other, so it’s important to create a bereavement policy that aligns with a company’s overall aims, principles, values as well as the environment in which the business operates.

While it’s a good idea to have a bereavement policy that outlines what can be expected in terms of time off and pay to keep things clear, it’s also important to remember that everyone grieves differently, so although a policy will work as an initial starting point, employers must remain flexible and understand that you can’t rush the healing process. It’s also important to remember that the time off needed may be different depending on an employee’s relationship to the deceased, as well as religious beliefs and funeral traditions.

The law

Employers have a legal obligation to allow employees to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to handle certain situations affecting their dependants – this includes making arrangements to deal with an unexpected disruption in their personal life or breakdown of existing care arrangements. This obligation also includes reasonable time off for the death of a loved one. There is no legal obligation for the leave to be paid, however many organisations will choose to offer pay, to support their employees.

That said, the rules are different for the loss of a child. As of April 2020 a legislation known as ‘Jack’s Law’ came into effect. It offers workers who sadly suffer the loss of a child under the age of 18, or whose child is stillborn from 24 weeks of pregnancy, a statutory minimum of two weeks’ leave. Working parents with a minimum of 26 weeks’ continuous service and weekly average earnings over the lower earnings limit will also be entitled to Statutory Parental Bereavement Pay.

This parental bereavement leave is available to all employed parents regardless of how long they’ve worked with the company. The leave must, however, be taken within 56 weeks of the date of the child’s death. The two weeks’ leave can be taken as a block of two weeks, or as two separate blocks of one week. If an employee suffers the loss of more than one child, they can take a separate period of leave for each child.

It’s important that employers offer these as a minimum and consider providing additional support. The loss of a loved one will have an impact not only on an employee’s wellbeing, but also their finances, given the high cost of funerals or overall loss of family income.  

Communication and leading with empathy

Sensitive managers and open conversations can make all the difference to employees during their time of need. Training managers, HR and the wider team to have compassionate and effective conversations with bereaved employees is crucial.

Each person's response to grief is different, but some common symptoms of grief include sadness, depression, anger, irritability, and poor concentration. It’s important that companies are able to spot these issues ahead of time, before they grow to become a larger problem. It also requires managers to have strong relationships with their teams so that those suffering won’t suffer in silence and feel comfortable enough to open up and seek help. This connection needs to happen long before an employee potentially suffers from grief and the foundations of trust should already formed.

Returning to work

Research by Funeral Guide found that while 7% of bereaved employees reported that they received enough time off after their bereavement, many also felt that their employers were very unsure about how to help them after they returned to work.

Any support offered should start with letting the griever take the lead. Some might need the space to grieve alone, while others could find that work offers them a temporary relief and distance from the overwhelming situation at home. Open communication between manager and employee will make sure that the right level of support is offered.

One thing to not forget is that the wider team might also be affected by a person's grief, so support may need to be offered to them in terms of having to pick up extra workloads and interacting with their bereaved colleague in a positive and supportive manner.

Despite appearing to perform as normal on the surface, remember that the full impact of bereavement may not be felt until long after the death. Be aware that special dates like birthdays and the anniversary of a death could have an impact on the employee.

Sadly, we can never replace a lost loved one, but with ongoing compassionate help and support, it is possible to restore a sense of meaning to an employee’s life. An employer can play a crucial role in supporting employees during their time of need and help an employee feel valued and respected within the organisation.

Interested in this topic? Read How managers can support employees with bereavement.

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