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Grieving is one of the hardest things that we as human beings are likely to go through, and it is something that people often have to manage while maintaining their professional lives. 

While incomparable to the experience of the bereaved employee, managers and HR professionals can feel concerned and even intimidated when presented with a team member experiencing grief. From an employer’s perspective, managing bereavement in the work environment requires sensitivity, compassion and a framework to guide their next steps, and getting it right isn’t always easy. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the need for comprehensive bereavement policies for many employers, with one in twenty Britons (which represents over 3.3 million people) having lost a family member and 8% having lost a close friend due to COVID. 

Those that have experienced grief know that having a supportive working environment and fewer work pressures can make all the difference to the recovery process – but the advantages of having a compassionate bereavement policy in place don’t only apply to the employee. If there is someone in your organisation who is going through bereavement, here are some steps you can take to help them.

  1. Understand bereavement in the workplace and create your policy

As difficult and sensitive an issue as it is, employers should not wait until presented with a bereaved employee to start pulling their policies together. According to 2009’s Grief in the Workplace: Developing a Bereavement Policy report, an estimated one in ten employees are affected by grief at any one time, and it was recognised by Thriving at Work: Review of Mental Health and Employees (2017) as a major life event which can worsen or even cause mental health conditions. 

Unfortunately, research suggests that many workplaces do not have the tools in place to deal with bereavement, and that this has the potential to affect employee retention. According to a YouGov survey by Child Bereavement UK in 2016, only one third of adults working at the time of their bereavement said they had felt very supported by their employer, while 32% who had been bereaved in the last 5 years felt they weren’t treated compassionately at work.

This should be a concern for employers, as over half of people (56%) reported they would consider leaving their job if their employer failed to provide proper support if someone close to them died. It is therefore important to get ahead of any problems and ensure you have a clear organisational bereavement policy and (if needed in your organisation) specially trained staff, and consider offering wellbeing services such as counselling to your employees. 

  1. Try to be generous with bereavement leave 

In the UK, there isn’t any law which requires employers to provide leave after the death of a loved one, and no statutory right to be paid for bereavement leave. In the Employment Rights Act 1996, however, employees can take time off to deal with emergencies (which includes the death of a dependent), and after tireless campaigning by bereaved mother Lucy Herd, “Jack’s Law” means that parents may be entitled to two weeks paid Parental Bereavement Leave if they suffer the loss of a child. 

While bereavement leave can be paid or unpaid at the discretion of the employer, it is important to consider that, especially in cases of losing close family members, that losing a loved one can be an expensive time. Typically, compassionate leave in the UK is 3-5 days long in cases where employees have lost an immediate family member, and 2-3 days for less close relationships such as the loss of a grandparent. 

When you take into account the fact that many people will need to attend to the deceased’s affairs, arrange and attend funerals, and may be emotionally strained from many months of caring for or worrying about someone who is terminally ill, it is clear to see how this amount of leave could be insufficient. It is also the case that the delineation of “immediate” family members from other kinds of relationships may not apply to everyone – a person may be estranged from their father, but absolutely devastated at the loss of a beloved aunt or close friend. 

Showing empathy in times of stress for employees makes both ethical and business sense in cases of bereavement. People understand when an employer has gone above and beyond the statutory minimum, and are aware that such behaviour shows that their managers and organisation genuinely cares about their wellbeing. This builds loyalty and trust in the workplace, positively impacting both performance and staff turnover – whereas insensitivity may drive an employee to quit and move on, taking their skills and knowledge with them. 

  1. Be adaptable, proactive and listen to your employees

Grief is not straightforward and everyone’s experience is different, which means it is vital to adapt your approach to the individual. Some people may cope well in the weeks following a death only to struggle months later. Some may want to be busy, while others find managing their workload impossible and will need a break. For a small but significant amount of people, their normal feelings of grief may develop into “complicated grief” – a disorder where painful feelings of loss become debilitating and do not lessen with time. 

At this incredibly sensitive time, people will expect platitudes, but they may not respond well to unfeelingly scripted or off-the-cuff responses. HR professionals and managers are understandably concerned with the needs of the business, but they must take the long view in cases of bereavement. Juggling staffing or productivity issues in the short term is difficult, but it isn’t worth alienating a usually engaged employee (or even worse, compounding their grief with undue work pressure) to ease short-term problems. 

Balancing your desire to help an employee with the day-to-day running of a workplace is not easy, and it’s natural that no matter how empathetic you are, you will be motivated to solve immediate work problems. Take a step back and start with simply being proactive and engaging your employee – heading off any developing issues by going to them to find out what they need. 

It may seem obvious and deceptively easy to just ‘listen’ to someone, but it can make a huge difference. Listen without an agenda and without judgement, and shape your existing bereavement policies to the individual needs of your employee. By focusing on their wellbeing, you can ensure your organisation is a positive part of their journey through grief, and that valued employees stay happy and productive in their role for years to come. 
This post was written by the team at Harold Wood Funeral Services, funeral directors in Essex who offer a family-led, friendly and supportive service.

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