An appropriate response to bereaved employees
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 An appropriate response to bereavement at work

Experiencing a bereavement is one of the most significant events that can occur in the life of an employee, yet too often the response of the employer falls far short of what they deserve.

For more than 20 years I managed employee assistance programmes within large organisations. One of the most common issues brought to my counsellors was bereavement, with employees often wanting help dealing with the enormous pain and distress they felt.

But what I also noticed was that lots of employees were coming not just for help managing their pain, but to help deal with the fallout from their employer’s response to their grief. Or rather, their lack of response to it.

They often encountered managers who didn’t know how to conduct bereavement conversations with the requisite sensitivity. As a consequence, the manager would leave it too long before having the conversation, blunder through it or avoid having it completely. Other managers would appear to be insensitive to their grief or vastly underestimate the significance of their loss and the process of adjusting to it. And in the most extreme case I heard of – thankfully not in my organisation – a manager asked an employee to return to work just hours after attending the funeral of a loved one.

Granted, that last case is far from the norm, but the pattern that emerged was that a lot of managers simply didn’t have the tools to handle the situation appropriately. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to help, it was that they just didn’t know what level of support was needed. And without any company guidelines on managing bereavement at work, they often improvised their response with varying degrees of success or failure.

The issue of bereaved employees isn’t going away

It’s been suggested that bereavement affects 10% of employees at any moment in time. Yet few organisations have a workplace bereavement policy. It is frequently subsumed within compassionate leave guidelines, with little guidance for managers on how to handle the interpersonal side of things.

A report produced by the National Council for Palliative Care revealed that 56% of employees would consider leaving their job if they weren’t given sympathetic support from their employer. The report also showed that demographic changes mean there will be a 15% increase in the number of bereavements between now and 2035.

This really ought to be an important issue for employers. Good support engenders loyalty and goodwill towards employers, while a lack of support can mean that employees take more time off as they struggle with their loss and may be demotivated on their return.

What can you do to help someone who’s bereaved?

Accessing bereavement guidance gives organisations and managers the understanding and the tools to handle the situation so much better. And it helps them avoid further stressing an employee who may already be reeling from their loss. Last year Acas, the advisory and arbitration service for employers, published a good practice guide for businesses on managing bereavement at work. The guide, which I recommend downloading, gives employers a clear outline of best practice on which to base their policies and procedures.

So what can managers do to support a bereaved colleague? Below are four pointers you can follow to help your employees through this difficult time.

  1. Recognise that everyone is different
    A good starting point is to recognise that everyone’s experiences and needs are different. Some people like to return to work relatively quickly following a bereavement, but others need more time and would find it impossible to focus if they returned too soon. So it’s important to have a conversation with your employee to find out how they are and to understand what form of support will be most helpful.
  1. Check in early and often
    You don’t get over a major loss quickly. Once your employee has returned to work following bereavement leave, check in with them at regular intervals. There are many ups and downs along the way and support at the right time makes a huge difference.
  1. Consider adjustments where necessary
    If your employee’s work has a strong emotional component, they may find this difficult and want to be relieved of these duties for a while. Be open to making changes to hours or work patterns, as the bereavement might complicate caring arrangements.
  1. Be sensitive to future difficulties
    Remember that there will be significant milestones ahead, like birthdays or anniversaries, when your employee is likely to experience some difficulties, even though at other times they may appear to have gotten over the worst.

These are just a few pointers to keep in mind. The ACAS guidance offers a highly accessible set of recommendations for managing bereavement. If you can absorb them into your organisational policy and practice they will vastly improve bereavement management in your workplace.