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How organisations can compassionately support bereavement

When it comes to bereavement, no two experiences are the same. So how can an organisation possibly put in place a suitable framework to support all employees in the event of the death of a loved one?

When my mum collapsed and died suddenly I was a busy HRD leading a large international team and working daily with the CEO and board. My manager was immediately supportive, from the moment I got the phone call through to dealing with the unthinkable.

In total, I took three weeks of paid leave, before returning to work in a fog of grief. While the initial support was incredibly helpful, the organisation did not have a framework in place to support my longer-term bereavement needs.

I sometimes wonder if the complexity and sensitivity of bereavement means it generally ends up in the ‘too hard basket.’

Research cited in the CIPD’s excellent Guide to Compassionate Bereavement found that only half of employees are aware of their employer having a bereavement policy or support in place.

In fact, a pragmatic and phased approach can be relatively straightforward to implement and communicate. It boils down to taking a holistic, flexible and phased approach, and getting the timing right on the variety of support interventions you make available.

While I strongly disagree that grief moves in a linear fashion through defined stages, it is helpful to think about bereavement support in terms of three time-related phases: immediate, short-term and longer-term.

Immediate - crisis support

Timeframe: first few days and weeks

In the immediate aftermath of the bereavement, employees need unconditional support to deal with the emotional shock, physical impact and logistical practicalities. This includes/requires:

  • Paid bereavement leave.
  • Managers skilled to make clear decisions of how to redistribute/manage workload, and how to stay in contact sensitively.
  • Bereavement awareness coaching or training for managers and colleagues – to ensure colleagues are given guidance on how best to support the griever. A short webinar and/or 1:1 session is all that is needed to cover the main aspects.
  • Offer the employee a list of external support options such as bereavement counselling. Ensure that anything already offered by the company via employee assistance program (EAP) or the private medical insurance provider) is made available.
  • Depending on the nature of the griever’s role, a risk assessment should also be carried out due to the physical impact grief can have.

Short-term - adjustment support

Timeframe: first few weeks when the employee returns to work

We know that the typical recovery timeline is far longer than most bereavement leave provisions could possibly allow.

When employees are returning to work and still in the grip of grief, the sensible approach is to conduct one or two return to work bereavement coaching sessions with the griever, together with some training and support for the manager and colleagues.

This can include:

  • Bereavement coaching – a short programme of 1:1 coaching specifically designed to support bereaved employees in the context of their professional life, including specialist guidance and support to return to work safely and effectively.

Longer-term support

Many grievers successfully apply coping strategies in the first few weeks and months, especially with the early crisis and adjustment support mentioned, and then start to struggle when time passes and awareness subsides. And yet we know that the impact of grief is typically felt months and often years later.

Some steps you can take:

  • Encourage regular conversations to modify and adjust the support in place.
  • Ensure that bereavement support is integrated within a wider wellbeing framework for wellbeing and mental health.
  • Build emotional awareness of bereavement and mental health in management skills training programmes to better equip your people managers to offer suitable ongoing support.
  • Encourage a culture of open conversations on the topic of death, grief and mental health – it can be combined with any existing ‘it’s ok to not be ok’ mental health awareness initiatives in place.

While these suggestions may not meet every need, they form a critical framework far beyond a basic bereavement leave policy.

They can be adjusted flexibly to accommodate a range of needs, a raised awareness and understanding of the topic, and a holistic connection with a wider mental health and wellbeing framework will make a significant impact.

Gemma Bullivant is an HR consultant and coach.

Further reading:

CIPD calls for bereavement leave and pay for all employees experiencing close family loss

All change is a form of grief

Steps to address grief in the workplace after lockdown

Back to basics...bereavement support