Loss is a complex concept, people can grieve from before the loss (anticipatory) to long after (secondary) and it can be caused by many different things – not just losing an immediate family member. Other types of loss can include the death of a friend or colleague, losing a pet, going through a miscarriage or the end of a relationship.
Most employees will experience loss at some time during their working lives. ACAS research estimates that 10% of employees are likely to be affected by bereavement at any given time, and so supporting a bereaved employee is something that HR and line managers need to be prepared for.
Raise awareness. Most of us find it difficult to talk about death and bereavement, but it is a natural part of everybody’s life cycle. Educating employees and line managers helps to change this from being a taboo topic and ensures that employees know where to turn for help, feel supported and are able to return to work without any fears. You don’t have to start from scratch, there are great resources available in the public domain.
Understand the law. This includes reasonable time off work to deal with an emergency, not being treated any differently due to a disability (which can in some instances be caused by the bereavement itself), maternity and paternity leave in the event of a stillborn child or the death of a baby after birth, contracted compassionate leave, and the employer’s duty of care.
Have a policy in place. A bereavement (or compassion) policy provides clarity to employees and line managers on what is expected of the employee (such as notifying the business) and what the business provides (such as bereavement leave and pay). Think of what other policies this may touch as well (such as absence) and ensure the content is consistent.
Support line managers. Line managers play a crucial role in managing a bereaved employee, such as reorganising work during the absence and updating colleagues. Remember that they are not immune from being personally impacted, especially if they have suffered a loss under similar circumstances themselves.
Break confidentiality. By law, employees have the right to keep their bereavement private. It is sensible for the line manager to ask the employee what, if anything, they would like their work colleagues to know. In the interim, it’s best to play it safe and say the absence is for personal reasons.
Treat everyone the same. Every employee’s bereavement is different. How people respond and the time they need off work depends on an endless list of factors such as their relationship with the person who died and the circumstances of the death. Bereaved employees won’t easily be able to judge how they may feel when back at work, and support will be required after they return, such as on memorable dates such as birthdays.
Forget about employee benefits. It is useful to remind bereaved employees of the benefits and services that are available to them and their families. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are particularly useful for bereaved employees as they can help with practical matters such as financial and legal issues. They can also offer immediate psychological support and counselling.
Forget to keep in touch. Line managers are usually best placed to have an initial conversation with the affected employee, to offer condolences and support. They can also reassure them about any worries they may have about work and offer any flexibility that may be required. It is good practice to agree how often the manager and employee will communicate after this initial contact.
Charles Alberts is head of health management at Aon