Are businesses doing enough to help employees following the death of a loved one? We examine simple steps employers can take to provide bereavement support at work.
The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic presents a challenge for employers in responding to death and bereavement – something people are seldom ever truly prepared for. But in the wake of the virus, there is an urgent need for businesses to become better equipped in supporting bereaved employees, of whom there could potentially be an unprecedented number.
At the time of writing, the UK has suffered the highest number of Coronavirus fatalities in Europe – being the first to exceed 100,000 deaths. And as the situation continues to unfold, losing someone to Coronavirus is likely to remain a harsh reality for employees and businesses alike in the weeks and months ahead.
For many, dealing with a devastating loss may be compounded with feelings of anxiety arising from additional challenges posed by the pandemic. As public health measures place restrictions on movement and gatherings, the planning and arrangement of funerals/burials has become more complex – placing additional strain on individuals during a very difficult time.
What’s more, it might not be possible for people to adhere to or engage in cultural traditions and religious rituals in marking the passing of a loved one, in the way they ordinarily would. This can exacerbate the grieving process and make it harder for a person to recover from their loss.
While bereavement is an experience that will be unique to each individual, providing a supportive environment that promotes compassion is both welcome and needed.
It has been argued for some time that there is insufficient support within organisations for bereaved employees during the grieving period and on returning to work. In a review by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) – which examines various studies on bereavement conducted since 1995 – it was found that there is little acknowledgement of the difficulties faced by employees in dealing with grief and bereavement.
In one such study, only a fifth of workers believed they were granted sufficient bereavement leave. Meanwhile, it was reported that requests for leave were denied, even when, in some cases, involving the loss of a child.
IOSH’s review found that merely one-third of businesses provided flexible working options for bereaved staff. Meanwhile, 84% of workers said they were expected to resume work as normal on their return from bereavement leave.
Discrepancies were also found to exist between company policy on bereavement leave and what is authorised by managers, who had discretionary authority in many instances. This can cause great uncertainty for employees, particularly in the absence of statutory entitlement to paid bereavement leave (barring two weeks’ paid leave for bereaved parents). The matter is further complicated by the fact that just over half (54%) of employees are aware that a bereavement policy exists at their place of work.
Research indicates that workplace bereavement support is an area of confusion not only for employees, but for employers too. Bupa reportedly saw a 40% increase in enquiries from employers seeking advice and guidance on supporting bereaved employees during lockdown.
On the employers side, that often extends to not knowing what to do or say, which can easily be perceived by the bereaved as a lack of interest or concern. One mourning employee shared her experience, revealing just how painful the lack of a sensitive response can be:
“I returned to work after two and a half months – the lack of understanding and support was incredible. No-one spoke to me about my husband or the situation. It was the ultimate elephant in the room.”
So what would a sensitive response look like? In one study, participants identified the responses they found to be most helpful after experiencing a loss. The most prominent were being asked if they were ok, being asked if they wanted to talk about their loved one and, having time off work. Conversely, the things they found most unhelpful were people avoiding the subject, being told to cheer up or others avoiding them.
There are real concerns that if employers do not respond to bereavement appropriately, it could have severe implications for employee mental health. One of the risks associated with the pandemic is more extreme grief responses. These can arise as a consequence of the unexpected, often abrupt circumstances of the death and the inability to engage in traditional mourning rituals. These responses include prolonged grief disorder and post-traumatic stress (PTSD). A supportive employer response can help to reduce the likelihood of this occurring.
How employers can support bereaved employees
Create a policy to define and communicate the company’s approach. Without a bereavement policy in place, it can be difficult to know what help and support is available for bereaved employees. Employers should seek to provide a policy that provides clarity on areas that could be of concern for staff during this difficult time, as well as outlining how they can be assisted. This might include: how to report a bereavement, absence and pay entitlements, returning to work arrangements and, details of relevant support services such as the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if applicable. It’s also a good idea to link to external services and organisations that a bereaved member of staff may find helpful, such as Cruse Bereavement Care and Mind, the mental health charity.
Make staff aware of the policy ahead of time by including it within the employee handbook and circulating it/informing them on how they can access it. It’s important that managers understand and periodically review the policy, as this will enable them to provide guidance and answer any questions that may arise.
Train line mangers in understanding bereavement. Managers are normally the first person an employee would report to following a bereavement. So it’s vital they appreciate the impact of loss and know how to provide sensitive and effective support. Bereavement training can ensure that managers are able to offer the considerate response employees expect and deserve when they report their loss. And the managers will feel more confident and better equipped to support them properly.
Provide flexible working arrangements. The process of grieving can be lifelong and involves challenges that are different for everyone. It’s important to recognise the potential need for, and openness to, providing ongoing support after an employee has experienced a loss.
Managers should approach discussions around returning to work sensitively and only do so when appropriate – exploring, in the first instance, whether the bereaved team member will be able to return and if so, what that will look like. For some employees, a phased return with a change in working pattern and/or responsibilities may be preferable and more manageable. Others may wish to resume normal operation with little to no changes to their workday.
Employers should offer working options and arrangements that allow for flexibility in the short and long term. This can help to meet specific needs an employee may have, such as requiring time off unexpectedly or managing childcare.
The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support wellbeing.