Dying is not a topic we choose to talk about with our nearest and dearest, let alone in the workplace, yet it affects as many as 1 in 10 members of the workforce at any one time. With Dying Matters Awareness Week taking place this week, it provides an opportunity for HR professionals to talk about how to address bereavement in the workplace.

Some might question whether it’s an employer’s role to step in and address bereavement, but there are a number of reasons why we should. Bereavement has a potentially significant impact on an employer’s bottom line in a surprising number of ways. Research from Unum shows that 30% of employees would consider leaving their job if they didn’t feel cared for by their company, and recognising and supporting employees suffering from bereavement is an important and tangible way of doing this.

With the right support and understanding, work can play a vital role in an employee’s recovery process. By creating a sense of normality, structure and focus in their life, meaningful work can be crucial to an individual’s psychological wellbeing, which is especially important during a period of grieving and recovery. Our workforce is telling us how important this is: 32% of bereaved people highlighted they weren’t treated compassionately by their employer, and 56% would consider leaving if no bereavement support was provided.

Look for the signs

Recognising bereavement in the workplace is the first step. Line managers play a key role in identifying if a person is struggling from the effect of a loss, and they are often best placed to inform HR. The effects of grief and bereavement can range from anger, guilt, relief, a sense of being out of control or your self-identity being under threat. Some signs to look out for in the workplace are fatigue, lack of concentration, restlessness or physical illness.


When a death happens, it’s important to keep lines of communication open, ensuring an employee is aware of what leave they are entitled to, as well as asking how they would like to stay in touch with their employer during this period of leave. It’s also useful to understand how much they want their colleagues to know, as this will vary from person to person.

When an employee is ready and able to return to work, regular communication is just as important, though often neglected, and arguably most vital to ensuring the process is as smooth as possible. If your organisation has additional support services available to employees such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP’s), or cognitive behavioural therapy, make sure they are aware of these. EAPs are often provided as part of an Income Protection policy, which provides a replacement income for those off work sick for more than six months.

Returning to work

Line managers are also pivotal in supporting a person’s return to work. Before this happens, it’s worth considering what possible adjustments might need to be made to their working patterns. For example, a temporary change of duties or location may be needed. Being aware of an employees’ personal circumstances outside of work will also have an impact on their performance, and providing additional support to accommodate constraints, such as offering flexible working for those looking after elderly relatives, may be hugely helpful.

Bereavement can and does have a significant impact in the workplace. Failing to intervene if someone is struggling with a loss, or poor management of the situation will affect the bottom line. Proper training for line managers around how to recognise the signs and best support an employee’s return to work can make all the difference. This is why Unum has partnered with St Catherine’s Hospice to create a free online toolkit, with interactive Q&As, videos and fact sheets to help managers feel in control when managing death and bereavement in their teams.

Joy worked as a clinical psychologist in Australia, lectured at Curtin University, and served in the government's Occupational Health, Safety & Welfare executive.

Following an MBA, she moved to Canada where, as Chief Adjudication Officer for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario, she oversaw claims, rehab and medical service provision to injured workers. Subsequently as VP Canadian Group Life & Disability for Manulife Financial, she undertook similar responsibilities in the private sector.

Joy moved to the UK in 2000 and joined Unum, an Income Protection provider. As Head of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, she is responsible for the provision of vocational rehabilitation services to Unum’s clients and their employees throughout the UK. Joy is a director of the Vocational Rehabilitation Association and the UK Rehabilitation Council.