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When employees experience a bereavement, how their manager responds can make all the difference.

It’s been suggested that 10% of employees are affected by a bereavement at any moment in time.

In February 2017, in a ground breaking move, Sheryl Sandberg CEO of Facebook offered 20 Days paid leave to employees that suffered a bereavement of an immediate family member and 10 days for someone from their extended family.

This followed Sandberg’s loss, 2 years earlier, of her partner Dave Goldberg, CEO of Survey Monkey. In an influential Facebook blog, Sandberg wrote “People should be able both to work and be there for their families. No one should face this trade-off. We need public policies that make it easier for people to care for their children and aging parents and for families to mourn and heal after loss.”

This call to action has resulted in many large corporations extending their bereavement provision, with Microsoft, AirBnB, Mastercard and Bank of America all following suit.

Understanding bereavement in the workplace

For a number of years pressure has been mounting in the UK for businesses to do more to support bereaved employees. And it’s not just about how much bereavement leave is on offer- it’s about how to ensure managers respond with appropriate sensitivity when an employee discloses their loss.  In September 2104, ACAS, in partnership with bereavement charity Cruse, published guidelines to help businesses to better support employees experiencing a loss. Updated in 2018 they reflect the continued need to encourage businesses to act in this area.

New research in 2019 confirmed that much still needs to be done.  Published in the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s (IOSH) Policy and Practice in Health and Safety journal, it focuses on the experience of bereaved workers returning to work and the support they receive from managers. The review shows that whilst some progress has been made and some businesses are now being supportive and flexible, the response of others is “insufficient”

Several studies featuring in the review indicated that there was no recognition of the difficulties employees experienced following a bereavement. Stressful scenarios were depicted of employees being required to focus on demanding work meetings shortly after experiencing a loss. The fact is often managers don’t handle these situations well, feeling unsure how to have sensitive and appropriate bereavement conversations. As a result, some leave it too long before broaching the subject whilst others blunder through it, without due preparation. Meanwhile inexperienced managers can appear insensitive to grief or vastly underestimate the significance of a loss and the complex process of adjusting to it.

The failure to respond appropriately isn’t normally because line managers are insensitive or uncaring – it’s usually because they have an inadequate understanding of bereavement and its impact. They worry about saying wrong thing and making the person feel worse and this can lead them to avoid the subject entirely, leaving the bereaved feeling even more isolated and hurt. In an instance of extreme insensitivity a manager told an employee that he expected him to be back at work two hours after his brother’s funeral. Without any company guidance on dealing with workplace bereavements managers are left to improvise their response with varying degrees of success or failure.

The issue of bereaved employees is not going away

Few organisations have a workplace bereavement policy. It is frequently subsumed within compassionate leave policies, with little guidance for managers on how to handle the interpersonal side of things.

And the consequences for businesses of getting it wrong are significant.  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 with our ageing population, there will be a 15% increase in the number of bereavements between now and 2035.

Mishandling bereavements can only damage the relation between an employee and the business whereas a sensitive approach combined with appropriate support will generate loyalty, trust and goodwill with all of their implications for staff retention and productivity.

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

Robust 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 is already struggling with their loss.

Crafting a policy around such a sensitive, significant and unpredictable life event requires some careful work. The ACAS guide featured earlier, gives employers a clear outline of best practice and provides examples of wording for policies and procedures.

Beyond cementing best practice into policy, what can managers do when a colleague experiences a bereavement?

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. Grief can’t be predicted or mapped, so have some flexibility in your approach.

Writing about her own bereavement following her partner’s unexpected death, REBA director Debi O’Donovan says “for some, grief hits straight away, for others it takes days, weeks or months. This is difficult for the person experiencing it because they cannot possibly tell their employer how long they will be off for.” Check in regularly and frequently with your bereaved colleague to find out how they are and to understand what form of support will be most helpful.

2. Check in early and often

You don’t get over a major loss quickly. As HR consultant Kirsten Cluer writes, “just because a person has returned to work, it doesn’t necessarily mean their grief has subsided and they may still have periods during which they struggle with their mental wellbeing.” Once your employee has returned to work following bereavement leave, check in with them at regular intervals to highlight any potential issues before they become major problems. There are many ups and downs along the way and support at the right time makes a huge difference.

  • 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.
  • Be sensitive to future difficulties
    Remember that there will be significant milestones ahead, like birthdays, anniversaries and Christmases, when your employee is likely to experience some difficulties, even though at other times they may appear to have gotten over the worst.

Taking a sensitive approach to bereavement in your policy and practice will enable you to make a positive contribution to your employees’ recovery from their loss and will build a stringer bond with you as their manager and their employer.

The Bank Workers Charity has a guide to bereavement on their website, providing information and advice.

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