Bereavement is always a shock, especially if the death is unexpected or violent. Yet our society does little to prepare us for it. Some people appear to take grief in their stride. For others, however, the death of a loved one can come as a devastating blow.
Whatever the response, bereavement will – sooner or later – come to us all. Working through grief is inevitably a painful process, but it is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human. No matter how overwhelming the feelings, life goes on.
No one can ever replace the lost loved one, but with the right help and support, it is possible to restore a sense of meaning to life. Although most people will lean on family and friends in times of loss, they should also be aware of the part their employer can play in helping to support them and in helping to restore a sense of normality.
Grief influences almost every aspect of the bereaved person’s life. It can interfere with their thought processes, concentration and sleep patterns at a time when they may need to make important decisions. Fatigue, anxiety and mood swings are common. Knowing that their employer supports them can help to minimise the employee’s stress levels and reduce or avoid periods of sick leave.
Once the employer has been notified of the bereavement it is best to ensure that the bereaved employee knows they are not expected to work on the day the death has taken place. They need to hear that work comes second and that they must take what time out is needed.
A conversation about when the employee anticipates returning to work may not be appropriate in the first days of bereavement. However it is important to start a dialogue which will allow an open discussion around how the employee is coping, the employer’s policy on bereavement, when they might be ready to return to work, and any adjustments that might help with this (e.g. a phased return).
It’s often difficult for bereaved employees to judge how they will feel in the workplace, and a swift return to work does not necessarily mean that an employee will not need support. Regular reviews will allow the manager and the bereaved employee to discuss and agree any strategies or adjustments which may be needed to enable them to return to work and to support them in the workplace after their return.
Organisations should consider referral or signposting to an external organisation for bereavement counselling, something like CiC’s own ‘Ad Hoc Counselling Referral Service’ can prove invaluable in times of employee bereavement. It should also be clear to the employee who in the organisation they should talk to if they need additional support.
Employers also need to be mindful of the family unit of the bereaved employee, and appreciate that in many cases, a flexible approach for example, offering part-time hours, or flexible working is most likely to support and retain the employee, and minimise sick days, as they negotiate new or increased caring responsibilities.
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 through an external support organisation like CiC.
If you want to help support bereaved employees during this difficult time, both in the workplace and at home, take a look at CiC’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).