Grief takes no prisoners. Coping with a bereavement can be incredibly difficult, and everyone does it differently. The complex, individual nature of grief can make it a huge challenge to navigate in the workplace.
Managers, colleagues and workplaces as a whole all have a role to play in supporting bereaved staff members in a highly emotional time.
There are also a lot of variables, which poses the question, how do you approach bereavement consistently while also providing the necessary level of support?
Not to mention, how can you support staff while also looking after business interests?
This is a complete guide to the big issues, including what to do and what not to do when supporting staff through grief and bereavement.
Implement a supportive bereavement leave policy
The first step in approaching any bereavement is to document a set policy to create guidance for both managers and impacted employees.
A bereavement policy should define what bereavement leave is available, and can even outline eligible relationships or circumstances. It outlines the process for requesting bereavement leave, any requirements and how the workplace will handle communication with colleagues, employee support and return to work protocols.
A bereavement policy should communicate the expectations of all parties clearly. This is a critical function because it allows managers and staff to understand what the approach is - essentially, what the rules are.
At the same time, a best practice bereavement policy should also include enough flexibility to adapt to the needs of any situation.
You can address this balance with a flexibility clause that acknowledges that individual circumstances may require a customised approach, such as a period of compassionate leave if someone doesn’t feel capable of returning to work after exhausting their bereavement leave entitlements. Encourage employees seeking flexibility to communicate their needs.
This clause shouldn’t minimise the standard approach to bereavement, but it helps to achieve a balance of consistency and the ability to provide the appropriate level of support.
Creating a compassionate culture
Workplaces where empathy and open communication are valued will find it easier to navigate bereavements. Staff in a workplace with a compassionate culture can react appropriately on a number of levels to provide the support required.
- Being genuinely committed to putting the needs of bereaved staff ahead of work - even if that means pushing deadlines or changing plans.
- Communicating appropriately to offer support without causing additional stress.
- Understanding how to assist employees as they return to work.
For Team Members:
- Being willing to take on work from a bereaved team member while they’re on leave.
- Acknowledging someone’s loss appropriately as they return to work.
For All Colleagues:
- Recognising that grief does not end when someone returns from work, and they may need to accommodate the needs of a bereaved team member for some time.
- Identifying factors that may cause distress when staff members return (i.e. a recently bereaved parent may struggle with a colleague giving birth to a new baby).
- Understanding and accommodating any cultural traditions that are important to the team members affected.
- Enabling bereaved staff to ease back into work as they work through their grief.
This is a common area where workplaces can struggle. While they want to be supportive, they also look to minimise the disruption to their own agendas. Unfortunately, disruption in bereavement situations is generally unavoidable. Accepting that fact and genuinely prioritising the employee’s needs first is the best way to avoid putting extra stress on them.
As with any element of workplace culture, this is best led from the very top of an organisation.
Returning to work
Plainly, the concept of when, and how, the bereaved employee will return to work is something you’ll need to navigate.
When should someone come back to work?
This will depend entirely on their individual circumstances. In many cases, someone will return to work once they’ve used their available bereavement leave. But in some instances, they may want more time.
There is no objective way of analysing whether someone’s request for additional leave is merited or not. Generally speaking, it would be considered harsh for a workplace to deny this type of request, even if it has grounds to do so. In an ideal world, someone’s wellbeing and mental state will be the deciding factor on when they’re able to return to work, and they are the ultimate judge of this.
The more compassion, freedom and understanding an employee is shown, the more likely they are to return to their productive selves once they have processed their emotions. On top of that, employees will remember the way they are supported through their grief, which makes it an opportunity to build staff loyalty and a positive team culture.
Empathetic managers will recognise that having a conversation about returning to work is probably not appropriate straight away. However, you can indicate that you’ll check back in on someone in a few days, or a week. This should primarily be about checking on their welfare before making a decision about work - not the other way around.
It may help managers to understand the process for arranging additional leave before having this conversation. That way, if it comes up, you can deal with it swiftly and avoid additional stress.
There should be a clear expectation that the employee will not be at their best as soon as they come back to work.
Grief takes a long time to process: recently bereaved workers are said to only be 70% as productive as normal for six months after a period of intense grief. Birthdays, anniversaries and other milestone dates may be particularly difficult. Recovery is not linear - it’s common to have off days, even as someone feels they’re starting to feel normal again.
Managers and colleagues should keep this in mind. It can be easy to forget about a colleague’s bereavement and assume they’re fine, and this may not always be the case.
Consider flexible arrangements such as working from home, or even working fewer hours than normal to help minimise the effect of work on their grief.
Managers should meet with the impacted staff member regularly to see how they’re doing and if the approach needs to be adjusted. People can react in many different ways when returning to work.
- If staff are throwing themselves into work in an unhealthy way to avoid dealing with their emotions.
- If the workload is too much for their current state of mind.
- If they’re underworked. It can be easy for grieving staff to feel like colleagues are too careful around them, and treat them as if they’re less capable than usual.
- If what the staff member is saying matches the behaviour they’re exhibiting. For example, if they say they’re fine but they’re acting differently and the quality of their work isn’t what it usually is.
These check ins should be honest conversations about how the employee feels. By starting with their emotions and understanding their state of mind, you can then look at how the workplace can best meet their needs.
Do’s and don'ts
- Ask affected staff members what they want their colleagues to know about their absence from work. Respect their privacy and do not disclose sensitive information without their consent.
- Ask if it’s appropriate for colleagues to visit them, or attend the funeral.
- Talk about how someone wants to be treated when they return to work. Ask how they would like colleagues to acknowledge their loss, if at all.
- Offer bereavement support such as resources or counselling.
- Take the staff member’s lead on what is the best work arrangement for them.
- Talk to them before sending flowers or a gift. Ask if there’s anything they need, where the best place is to send a gift, or if it’s appropriate for colleagues to all sign a card.
- Ask if they’d like to be kept updated with relevant aspects of work while they’re on bereavement leave.
- Offer an informal visit to work before their first day back. Seeing colleagues for the first time without the pressure of working can help with the emotional aspect of being back in the workplace.
- Be aware that close colleagues may also be affected by a staff member’s loss, and might need support.
- Remind staff if their leave is paid or not. This is an important detail that can be easily forgotten, and can create issues - particularly if leave is unpaid and they weren’t aware.
- Call the bereaved staff member unexpectedly while they’re on leave. Arrange a time to talk that suits them.
- Pretend nothing has happened. Acknowledge someone’s loss and offer support, but try not to offer unsolicited advice, solutions or explanations. Be prepared to listen if they want to talk.
- Relate someone’s loss or grief to your own story, unless they ask about it. Grief is different for everyone, and often hearing someone else’s experience isn’t helpful.
- Enforce leave entitlements strictly. While you may be contractually entitled to, this will only have a negative impact on workplace culture.
If you want to learn more about grief and hear some practical tips to support those who are grieving, check out the Clear The Air webinar on Dealing with Grief in the Workplace with with Dr Lucy Hone.
Dr. Lucy Hone understands more about grief and bereavement than most. She is a respected leader in resilience psychology, a sought after speaker, best selling author and award-winning researcher. She also has the tragic experience of losing her 12 year old daughter in a car accident.
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