As a key part of our economic and social lives, workplaces can be critical sources of support for employees who have experienced bereavement. However, business leaders and those in management positions are not always aware of the need to provide effective assistance or encourage open conversations around grief.
This issue has been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic, stressing the need for employers to revaluate their approach to grieving employees to ensure they are providing sufficient support to those who have lost a loved one.
This piece will offer advice on how businesses can manage grief in the workplace and ensure they are equipped to support employees during this challenging time.
Communication is key
From September 2019 to September 2020, 24 per cent of the working population in Britain experienced bereavement. This equates to around 7.9 million people*. Yet a third of employees who experienced a bereavement did not receive any communication from their management or organisation in relation to their loss*.
Communicating with employees who have experienced a bereavement is vital. Employers should take time to speak to their employee, to offer condolences (and send a gift or card where appropriate), to see how the individual is coping during any time off and also establish what a bereaved employee would like colleagues to know about their loss. When the grieving employee returns to work, employers should have regular check-ins as this can also go a long way to ensuring an employee feels supported and enable a manager to identify what adjustments or communication is needed.
Failure to communicate or provide support may not only leave employees isolated in their grief, it can also have negative consequences for the working relationship. For example, causing the individual to feel more reluctant to return, prolonging recovery to full capacity or resulting in an employee leaving the organisation altogether. In fact, research from Hospice UK suggests that 56 per cent of people would consider leaving their employer if they didn’t provide proper bereavement support**.
Encourage conversations about grief
Business leaders have an important role to play in creating an environment where employees are comfortable talking about grief. Having the courage to talk openly about personal experiences of death or providing time and space for employees to discuss it can help to normalise conversations and raise awareness about resources available to staff internally and externally. It can also help with the grieving process, enabling the bereaved individual to talk about it, share their experience with colleagues and not feel they need to bottle up their grief and feelings.
In a recent survey, employees who looked positively on the support they received after experiencing a bereavement report that their employer showed understanding and compassion†.
Often, empathy can manifest itself in small acts. For instance, ensuring that a recently bereaved employee is not faced with situations that may be difficult for them, such as greeting a colleague’s new baby after the loss of their own, or temporarily moving them away from having to deal with frustrated or angry customers.
It could also mean allowing them to leave early or start late, if they are upset, or considering that they may need a lighter workload, to work different hours, or undertake a slightly different role to help reduce stress or deal with practical matters related to the loss. Having the conversation enables the required support and adjustments to be explored.
While empathy cannot be prescribed, employers can actively hold workshops where managers are asked to think and share ideas about how the organisation should deal with bereavement and how an individual might be feeling. This encourages individuals to reflect on what they would do, creates a common language and builds confidence in supporting bereaved employees.
Implement a bereavement policy
Establishing a clear framework which outlines what employees can expect from their employer when experiencing a bereavement, in terms of leave, workload, and shift patterns is crucial. Ensuring this is communicated across the business can also create a degree of certainty and reassurance for employees and sends a strong signal that the employer is there for its people during times of grief.
If managers have a bereavement policy to refer to, this empowers the line manager to feel comfortable in communicating what the bereaved person is entitled to. Without a policy, there can be inconsistencies in the way colleagues are treated which may lead to resentment and more difficult conversations.
Encourage time away from the workplace
While there is no formula to calculate when to return to work after a bereavement, it is clear that bereaved employees value not being pressured into returning to work before they are ready. In a recent survey, 60 per cent of people who had experienced a bereavement and thought their employer had supported them well, cited allowing them enough time off as the key action their employer took†. Effective and supportive conversations enable the time off to be managed in the best way for both employee and employer and to plan ahead.
Consider paid bereavement leave
Unfortunately, in the UK there is currently no legal requirement for employers to grant compassionate leave, except for parents who have lost a child under 18. Typically, companies offer three to five days compassionate leave, yet evidence supports the case for more compassionate leave.
For instance, a recent survey conducted by Sue Ryder showed that 62 per cent of the adult population believe paid leave following the death of a parent, partner, sibling or child should be a week or more, with 42 per cent believing it should be two weeks or more‡.
Not only will offering a period of paid bereavement leave help to support grieving employees, it is also likely to benefit employers in terms of staff retention and productivity.
Signpost external resources
As a key point of contact for an employee who has experienced a bereavement, workplaces can offer information about bereavement support available in the wider community. This may include written material, physical and virtual support groups, counselling, and group therapies.
However, given that individuals find different forms of support helpful, organisations should provide them with information about what support is available, rather than push employees towards a particular source of help.
Because of the very personal nature of grief, it can be difficult for employers to develop a set of practices which suit every situation. However, by implementing these recommendations, organisations can help to ensure that they are providing adequate support to bereaved employees, while also benefiting the business in the long-run with higher productivity, fewer long-term absences linked to bereavement and a lower staff turnover.
*: Census Wide/Sue Ryder (September 2020). Survey of 1002 General Consumers in the UK and 500 respondents who have been bereaved in the last year in the UK, UK, Dataset
**: Hospice UK (2019)’ Hospice UK launches new programme to create more compassionate workplaces and better support employees’, October 2020
†: Census Wide/Sue Ryder (November 2019). 1,061 UK respondents who are bereaved (Aged 16+), UK, Dataset.
‡: Census Wide/Sue Ryder (September 2020). Survey of 1002 General Consumers in the UK and 500 respondents who have been bereaved in the last year in the UK, UK, Dataset