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Bereavement in the Workplace

27th February 2019

“Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes”, or so the saying goes. Bereavement may be a fact of life but that doesn’t make it any easier to manage when it happens, both at a personal level but also when it is a colleague, co-worker or team member. Nevertheless, there is much employers and managers can do to provide support at work during what can be a difficult and emotionally challenged time.

Employee health and wellbeing - supporting employees following bereavement

“I’m sorry for your loss.” It’s well meaning, of course, but it still sounds inadequate, doesn’t it?

When someone at work experiences a bereavement, it can often be hard to know what is the “right” thing to say or do, whether it’s a colleague experiencing loss or whether you’re the one who is working through and coping with a bereavement.

In many respects, this is hardly surprising. Modern medicine means that nowadays we’re living longer and, more often than not, we expect illnesses or injuries to be able to be “cured”. Even mortality rates for conditions such as cancer, the “Big C”, have been in decline for many years as diagnosis, treatment and survival rates have all improved.

Death, and the experience of bereavement, is much less part of the fabric of life than it was, say, in the Victorian era or even early last century. Most of the time – and thankfully – we’re much less exposed at a day-to-day level to death and dying – the experience of someone near to us dying – than previous generations.

Yet, at the same time – and especially against the backdrop of an ageing population – there are going to be times when colleagues and team members find themselves coping with a bereavement or when it becomes a personal issue you’re carrying with you into work.

Whether it is relatively expected – perhaps an elderly relative who has been in slow decline – or a bolt from the blue, the shock and trauma of bereavement can be challenging, especially in terms of how it is managed within the workplace setting, and who you can turn to for support and guidance, both to help others or to help yourself cope.

Importance of training

Optima Health’s Professional Head of Mental Services Dr Andrew Kinder suggests approaching what can be a sensitive and emotive issue requires a combination of support tools and training to ensure managers have the confidence to make the right, supportive decisions that are going to make a positive difference.

This can include ensuring managers have at least a working knowledge of how grief works and can affect people. Everyone is likely to be different, and respond differently, to a bereavement, but it can be valuable to understand the five common stages of grief. These have been outlined as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

“When someone is grieving, it is important to recognise they may behave out of character. They may become more introverted, or angry, or overly critical of others. It can be important therefore to give employees some ‘slack’ while at the same time being prepared to recognise and intervene if their behaviour becomes inappropriate or damaging,” Andrew argues.

It is also important to understand, and be aware of, the role of work within the coping and grieving process.

Therefore, at a practical level, it can be a good idea to make sure that you spell out the practical support available, especially access to time off, whether paid or unpaid, and your organisation’s bereavement policy. But also bear in mind that employees may wish to return to the “anchor” or “normality” of work as part of the coping process.

Yet also be aware that for a time there may be a “new normal” in this context, Andrew cautions.

“It is well-recognised that work and being back at work can play an important part in the grieving/coping process. But don’t assume an employee will immediately be back to performing at the same level they were before the bereavement. Bereavement is not something you ‘get over’, and it may be weeks, months or sometimes even years before someone feels they are fully back to ‘normal’,” he says.

Access to EAPs

Another important practical point is to ensure the employee feels they have time and space to talk, should they wish so. This will often simply be through informal channels and workplace friendships.

But offering access to confidential counselling resources such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) may also help. It may be, too, that you as their manager may be happy to lend a sympathetic (and if need be confidential) ear, although this is likely to depend on the hierarchy, structure or levels of trust within the organisation.

“One of the challenges with bereavement is that it can lead to someone’s personal life – something that has happened at home or outside of work – bleeding into their workplace ‘persona’. So, it may be that, for instance, someone suddenly bursts into tears at their desk. This can be challenging for anyone to manage or know how to respond,” explains Andrew.

“But giving managers the right training and skills, for example around emotional intelligence, empathetic listening, holding ‘difficult’ conversations, and emotional resilience, can all help. It can give managers the confidence to know that, even if there is never an absolutely ‘right’ answer, what they’re doing and how they’re responding is valuable and hopefully positive at a difficult time,” says Andrew.

Finally, it is worth signposting some of the resources and toolkits that are available out there, and which can offer valuable practical tips and advice.

For example, the conciliation service Acas has a useful Managing Bereavement in the Workplace guide, produced in partnership with Cruse Bereavement Care, which also has its own do's and dont's to this issue. But there are also others available online.