Supporting employees through bereavement and grief

Unfortunately, the last 14 months have seen more people than usual facing their own grief or having to deal with the bereavement of others. What can an employer do to support employees in this situation?

Understanding the grieving process is helpful for the employee and for those around them. The grief curve comprises five core stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, although not everyone goes through it at the same speed, depth or order.

While trying to understand the situation and the emotions involved is a big step towards helping employees who are suffering from grief, there are practical steps that can be taken too.

  • Say something - It is often hard to know what to say but lack of communication is not the answer. Acknowledging the situation and being empathetic will go a long way.

  • Utilise line managers - Line managers are the gateway for a business to understand what an employee is dealing with, both in and outside of work. They will be close to their colleagues and in a position to help.

  • Mental health first aiders (MHFAs) - Make employees aware if the organisation has MHFAs and that they can help with signposting to support or just offer a friendly ear. MHFAs will be specially trained to have these conversations and know how best to approach colleagues non-judgmentally with encouragement for seeking further help if needed.

  • Signposting - Once it has been ascertained that an employee needs more than just a friend or colleague to talk to, the next step is signposting. Information on how and where to obtain further help should be made easily accessible, and all employees should know where to find it. Different people prefer to seek help in different ways – over the phone, in person, by reading, in an app, so ideally all need to be made available.

More help and advice for HR:

How organisations can compassionately support bereavement

Steps to address grief in the workplace after lockdown

National Bereavement Service grief support and counselling

  • Group income protection and EAPs - Both as an early intervention or perhaps a rehabilitation to the workplace, group income protection policies can help. Many group income protection plans have an employee assistance programme (EAP) integrated as part of their proposition, so it’s important to ensure the business knows exactly what is available to employees from the providers that are already in place. If the loss is of a colleague and several staff are affected by grief, some EAP providers will help with a ‘crisis’ helpline and support. We have found this has proved very useful to clients where employees have witnessed a traumatic death such as a suicide, near their office or among their employees.

  • PMI mental health - If the situation has triggered a mental health illness or crisis, some private medical insurance (PMI) plans will cover referrals to psychiatrists and in-patient support. There may be limits, so employers should try to check in advance. We have recently seen the emergence of mental health pathways within PMI providers. This is a ‘one-stop shop’ starting with a helpline and guiding employees to whatever additional support might be needed from there.

  • Group life assurance - Ensuring nominations for group life assurance are up to date will help any payment to loved ones go through without additional delays. It is good working practice to ask employees to update these on a regular basis.

Everyone deals with grief in different ways. The key for employers is to be aware of how employees may be feeling and to offer personalised support. It’s not always possible to know what the right thing is to say, but it is important to make support available and to signpost employees to that support.

There’s a lot of help available to employers, including mental health, employee assistance programmes and specialist charities. It’s important for employers to be aware of what’s available and put it in place, so employees can access that help when it’s needed.

Debra Clark is head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health & Protection