Six steps to supporting employees through bereavement

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Bereavement is one of the most devastating things any of us will ever go through. For many employers, it can be difficult to know how to respond when an employee is bereaved.

Recent Ashridge Business School research into bereavement in the workplace found that the ‘suffering overspill’ caused by grief has significant psychological and interpersonal implications for individuals at work, yet employers know little about how to respond.
 
The way that employers respond to employee bereavement can make or break an individual’s grief experience. For example, a 2014 survey of over 4,000 adults in the UK found that 32% of people who had been bereaved within the past five years and who were in a job at the time did not feel they had been treated with compassion by their employer. And 56% of those surveyed said that they would consider leaving their job if they were not treated with compassion.
 
Here are six practical steps for line managers, HR professionals and colleagues to consider when supporting employees through the distress of bereavement:
 
Learn to recognise the stages of grief

Line managers, HR professionals and colleagues alike should learn about the grief process in order to try and understand what individuals may be going through and to enable them to respond with compassion. Kübler-Ross & Kessler describe five stages of grief from denial and anger, to bargaining, depression and acceptance. But it is important to recognise that each person grieves in a very different way and at different speeds.

Further, during the grief process, individuals may behave out of character, for example a normally outgoing person may withdraw from social settings, or a usually calm person may react angrily. This can be part of the grieving process for some people, so it is important that colleagues do not judge or criticise seemingly uncharacteristic behaviour.
 
Be aware of the role of work in the coping process
 
For some people, work is an important coping mechanism. Work can be a distraction, especially in the early stages of grief, and by attempting to work through it, some people find that it provides some normality and routine. Work can be an important anchor for some people when other facets of their life feel in disarray. It is especially important for line managers to understand that a quick return to work does not mean it is ‘business as usual’. Work may be part of the coping process, so limit your expectations of these individuals and do not assume that they will be able to perform at the same level straight away. Individuals grieve at different speeds and in different ways. It may be weeks, months or years before an individual is able to perform at the level they once did.
 
Treat people as grown-ups

It is important to remember that we are all unique. We all have different personalities, life circumstances and ways of coping. Line managers should therefore be empowered to flex bereavement policies to allow individuals to take the time that they need away from work and to choose their own point of return. By treating people as adults and giving them the choice, most people will return to work within a timescale that is acceptable to the organisation. Research suggests that the way in which HR bereavement and sickness policies are interpreted shapes the way employees view their employer and their commitment to the organisation. Compassionate employers are therefore not just ‘nicer’ organisations to work in, they also have higher staff retention levels as a result.
 
Create a ‘safe space’ to talk
 
Unless there is a safe environment at work where employees can openly express their emotions without fear of judgement or reprisal, grief can become ‘stifled’, and individuals may be unable to complete the grieving process. Unfortunately, in the UK, the ‘stiff upper lip’ culture still prevails in many organisations, where people are expected to keep their emotions in check. In some settings, crying at work is perceived to be completely out of bounds, which can place a huge pressure on people who are going through personal difficulties, such as a bereavement. Line managers, colleagues and HR professionals should work to create opportunities for individuals to speak in confidence about their grief experiences. Having someone you trust and can confide in at work can significantly aid an individual’s recovery.
 
Recognise that line managers are pivotal in the healing process
 
Line managers should be proactive in their support to individuals who are experiencing bereavement, but it is important that they ask the individual themselves how they would like to be supported and how they would like their situation to be communicated to others. In one instance for example, a well-meaning line manager did not inform the rest of the team that one of his direct reports had experienced a bereavement, believing that he was respecting confidentiality. However, when the individual returned to work, nobody acknowledged his trauma, so he assumed that everyone was trying to avoid a difficult situation. It is vital that line managers do not offer just a one off conversation about an individual’s bereavement and their return to work, but they continue to create the time and space for confidential non-work conversations after the bereavement has occurred.
 
All may not be as it seems
 
Once back at work, it is important that line managers, HR professionals and colleagues remain sensitive to any underlying signs of distress. Despite appearing to perform as normal on the surface, some individuals struggle for a long-time after a bereavement to psychologically adjust and some experience ongoing mental health issues such as anxiety or depression as a result. One of the ways in which line managers may learn to pick up on the hidden signs of distress is by providing the opportunity for ongoing confidential non-work conversations, or for the organisation to formally provide individuals with access to a named member of staff with whom the individual can talk in confidence, or organise specialist ongoing support.
 
Death often remains a taboo subject in Britain, but these steps are designed to help employers and HR professionals cope with bereavement more comfortably. Getting a handle on these is essential for the wellbeing, happiness and productivity of staff and important for employee retention.

Amy Armstrong is a research fellow and member of faculty at Ashridge Business School ?  ?This article is based on Armstrong's doctoral thesis (2014) 'I'm a better manager: A biographic narrative study of the impact of personal trauma on the professional lives of managers in the UK', Aston University. ? 

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