Bereavement is a tricky subject to handle in many contexts, not least in the workplace. Although death is something that will affect everyone at one time or another, it tends not to be discussed or even thought about until someone near us dies.  So when there is a death in a work community, we often flounder in our attempts to handle it confidently. Here, John Ritchie, chief executive at Ellipse reflects on how we might best handle bereavement in the workplace.

The predominant feeling is worrying about what to say and do when bereavement enters the workplace can result in what is probably the biggest mistake to make: not communicating at all with someone who has suffered a bereavement. In not saying or doing enough, it is easy to leave the bereaved colleague feeling isolated.

There have been recent attempts to lobby the Government to introduce statutory entitlement to bereavement leave from work in the manner of maternity and parental leave. In response to an online petition, their (unnamed) spokesperson said:

“…the Government believes that all requests for leave related to bereavement are best left for employers and their employees to decide between themselves.

…There are no plans to introduce a specific right to support bereaved parents/relatives. In doing so we would be obliged to put in place limits, standards and definitions. The amount of leave needed can vary from one individual to another, and defining what family relationship would qualify for such leave, would be difficult, as it would be impossible to legislate for every circumstance.

Whilst there is no specific right to “bereavement leave”, all employees do have a day-one right to “time off for dependants” which allows them to take a reasonable amount of time off work to deal with unexpected or sudden emergencies, including when a close family member dies.

…The Government hopes that employers are as sympathetic and flexible as possible in responding to employee requests for time off, particularly when bereavement is involved.”

Even the EU, which often takes the lead in setting social legislation, steers clear of making rules about how bereavement is handled, believing that the different cultures and traditions across Europe make it too difficult to set rules that would apply right across it.

The legislators are therefore unlikely to lay down rules about bereavement leave any time soon and see it as up to employers to decide what is appropriate. With evidence of many employers being clumsy in this – a survey by the National Council for Palliative Care earlier this year found that a third of people bereaved in the last five years do not feel that their employer treated them with compassion – it is clear why some looked to Government to set some mandatory standards.

For better or worse, though, bereavement is not a topic where employers can simply fulfil any legal requirement, beyond the need to be ‘reasonable’ about any requests for leave from their employees. But they are faced with the many of the same problems that make legislating too difficult. How do they ensure fairness for all while respecting different employees’ individual emotional, familial and cultural needs?

Larger companies will often set down a policy for how much leave can be allowed following a bereavement. As well as setting down the time off that can be taken, either paid or unpaid, these policies will usually define how close a relationship has to be – sibling, parent, child, grandparent and such like – to trigger an allowance to time off. It makes sense to have a policy as a basic framework that provides some consistency but it would be a mistake to think that this is where corporate responsibility on the subject begins and ends. Bereavement needs to be handled with sensitivity and this means more than just the amount of leave that can be given.

Business leaders and team leaders within businesses need to show leadership. They need to show by example how to engage with a bereaved colleague. They should start from the assumption that any policy in place should be regarded as a starting position and be both flexible and generous in where they go from there. Every bereaved employee’s circumstances will be different, which means their practical and emotional needs will be different. It should be obvious that someone in their early 20s losing a grandparent who made it to their tenth decade will have very different needs to a colleague who has just lost their child after spending the last six weeks at their bedside in a hospice.

Some people may be able to accept a relative or friend’s death with it having little impact on their own lives but, even if this appears to be the case, it is dangerous to assume that people will get over their loss or, indeed, assume that there is any sort of closure. Bereaved people adjust differently and there are no easy rules of thumb to predict when and how their loss will affect their emotional or physical wellbeing.

Regardless of a company’s official policy, being generous in terms of allowing time off for the practical things will in all likelihood be reciprocated in how employees work and view their employers in future. Coming across as unfeeling will not only alienate bereaved individuals but also their colleagues, so treat people as people. Business or department leaders should not hesitate to communicate and to express sympathy at the earliest opportunity, then follow up with a sympathy card sent on behalf of the whole team. Most importantly, there should be a conversation with the bereaved colleague immediately on their return to work.

A manager should encourage people at all levels in his or her team to acknowledge the colleague’s loss. Just use the old Irish formula of taking them by the hand, looking them in the eye and saying “I am very sorry for your loss”. That then enables the colleague to talk as much or as little about the situation as they want but they know it is acknowledged and is not out of bounds in conversation.

While being generous in allowing time off, it can be counter-productive to be too generous. Some people, especially in these days when more and more people live alone, get most of their social interaction through work. Staying away too long can lead to them being isolated, which can just make the pain of bereavement even worse. Convincing evidence of the importance of reducing the risk of isolation comes from the work of the leading bereavement charities, who emphasise the value of bringing bereaved children and their parents together with their peers.

These bereavement charities are an extremely useful resource for some bereaved colleagues. It is obviously up to the individual whether or not they call on their help, but they can offer more than just a sympathetic ear. Often, it can be the practicalities of handling death that can leave people floundering. Just how do you explain the death of a parent or grandparent to a small child?  What sort of issues face children of all ages that need to be addressed? The charities will have experts with extensive experience who can provide answers to these and other questions. Merely knowing that other people have been in the same position – and got through it – can be a huge relief and comfort. It makes sense for companies to keep a small directory of organisations who can offer help, especially where there has been past experience of what they can offer. If there is no experience to go on, a web search for ‘bereavement charities’ will throw up many useful results and show what charities operate and where (many are local rather than national in their scope).

The way a bereaved employee is handled affects how other employees will view their company and its management. It is one of those situations where it might seem to be outside the realm of any manager to take on, but most people will appreciate an honest attempt to be helpful and sympathetic, certainly more than if someone’s bereavement is quietly ignored.

Handling bereavement in the workplace is about more than applying one small part of the terms and conditions of employment. The emotional impact of death is a real issue to be faced, however uncomfortable that might be for some managers. Worrying about saying the wrong thing can lead to not saying anything, leaving the bereaved individual feeling isolated and with a sense that their reality is being ignored. Being a leader means setting a lead in all situations, regardless of whether they are directly connected to the ‘day job’. It is therefore for business leaders, at all levels in business, to take the initiative, communicate openly and sincerely, and set their people the example that to be human and caring in this situation is the entirely natural – and correct – thing to do.

John Ritchie, chief executive at Ellipse