Managing grief in the workplace

Happy new year! I feel this is the appropriate greeting on two levels. I have been away for a few weeks, and it seems like a whole year. This is my way of saying I have missed you and I hope you have missed me as well. The second reason is that the year is hurtling along so fast that we will all soon legitimately be saying, Happy new year. I therefore want to be the first to say this.

I recently lost someone very dear to me and it got me thinking about how organisations help and support staff through the grieving process, as this is something that will always come up. It is a fact of life.

A known fact is that losing a loved one, friend or colleague is one of the most traumatic experiences that a person will go through, and can impact upon every aspect of a person’s life. Although it can feel difficult to talk about death in a workplace context, it is essential to have a plan in place to support bereaved colleagues, both emotionally and practically.

A compassionate and flexible approach to bereavement in any organisation shows that employee wellbeing is top priority.

The first instance is to be prepared and have policies in place to support bereavement. This is a sensitive topic that can often go under-discussed, and organisations can find themselves unprepared when it happens. The policies have to be up to date. Reviewing the bereavement policy will give managers the framework to ensure grieving employees are treated fairly and with dignity. Where possible, specific training should be given on this topic.

Employees should be made aware of the support available before they need it, including services such as telephone and face-to-face bereavement counselling and how they, and on some occasions their wider family members, can access these. I know this may not be easy for small organisations, but you should do as much as possible.

There should be immediate support. Grief affects everyone differently, so support must be suited to the needs of the individual. Managers who are not traumatised by it can make themselves available to talk, but also point employees in the direction of appropriate professional help. Flagging those resources available outside of working hours can be critical. Find out where NGO or government helplines are available 24 hours a day and all year round. Grief is not restricted to work hours.

Your organisation’s benefits provider may also provide emotional guidance on managing the grieving process and resulting lifestyle changes, as well as practical support on registering a death and probate advice where necessary. The employee will not be the only person dealing with the loss, and these services may also be available to family members within the same household. The organisation may not have to set all this up themselves.

The affected employee can be offered compassionate leave. There is no statutory compassionate leave, so organisations should put this in place. Organisations usually offer between two and five days of leave following the death of a family member, but grief experts suggest that this should be closer to 20 days. If bereaved employees do not take the time they need to process their loss, it could result in a longer period of absence further down the line.

Managers should approach this process with transparency and flexibility, asking employees how they would like to be contacted and how much information they wish their co-workers to be given about their absence. An individual’s cultural or religious practices, such as mourning rituals, also need to be taken into consideration.

There is a need to manage return to work. The amount of time that employees feel they need away from work will vary. For some, work will be seen as a welcome distraction, but it can be difficult to predict how they will cope with being back in the working environment.

Read also: United in grief again (4)

By keeping lines of communication open, managers and employees can work together to formulate a reasonable return to work plan. A phased return may be a good way to prevent the employee feeling overwhelmed. When they do return, appropriate arrangements will need to be made to make sure they are supported both in the short and long term.

Bereaved employees will need continued support as they navigate new personal circumstances. Even as time passes, it is important to be aware that certain occasions, such as the anniversary of the death, may cause difficult emotions to surface. Organising regular check-ins will allow managers to monitor how an employee is coping and offer practical help to ease the pressure they are under. A referral to an external counselling organisation can offer an additional level of support.

Managers should reflect on whether any adjustments need to be made to the company policy to better support employees in the future.

The pandemic has made companies appreciate how important their staff are, and how essential it is to ensure that employee wellbeing is at the top of the business agenda. Although times are currently tough for many businesses, leaders should not lose sight of the importance of workplace health and wellbeing support.

How an employer responds when an employee is dealing with a traumatic personal situation can have a significant impact. It is reported that people would consider leaving their job if their employer did not provide proper support in their time of need. Death is a difficult subject to talk about, but organisations that have a robust set of policies in place and provide adequate support will find that they are much better-equipped to help with staff who have suffered a bereavement.