The year 2020 will go down in history; most people would agree it’s like living through a bad dream and yet, as we approach the end of the year, we’ve become strangely accustomed to living through a pandemic and have learnt to adopt a ‘new approach’ to normal life.
But for the bereaved, it’s been unthinkable – to be apart from dying loved ones, unable to attend funerals or at least gain some much-needed comfort in the form of hug from a family member or friend. As if the grieving process wasn’t difficult enough, the bereaved have been forced to navigate a much more isolated way of grieving over the past year.
For employers, this has added an extra layer of difficulty to an already sensitive subject: dealing with grief in the workplace. With many of us working remotely, communication channels have become restricted, therefore making the role for HR professionals and line managers more complex in being able to easily check-in with a grieving employee.
And yet all the research tells us that employers who demonstrate a compassionate and supportive approach to their staff and who value their employees, help to build commitment and loyalty, reduce sickness absence and retain their best employees. Therefore, it’s a good reason for employers to ensure they handle bereavement in the workplace with competence and sensitivity.
The following can provide some guidance to employers in supporting a grieving colleague during these current, challenging times.
Ensure a bereavement or compassionate leave policy is in place
Research from the CIPD (www.cipd.co.uk) found that just over half (54%) of employees said that they were aware of their employer having a policy or support in place for employees experiencing bereavement while many were not.
A bereavement policy is vital for creating a framework for managers and HR which ensures consistency and fair treatment for all. Whilst there is not a legal ruling for how many days off should be allowed for bereavement (except for the death of a child under the age of 18), a compassionate leave policyallows for individual circumstances to be taken into account and should include a degree of flexibility.
A good starting point may be for the policy to state in respect of whom leave will be granted and how much leave will normally be available, but also to acknowledge that circumstances will differ and that additional leave may be granted at the employer’s discretion.
Include bereavement in your mental health strategy
Mental health and wellbeing in the workplace has grown to prominence over recent years but within that, coping with major life changes and losses is often under-estimated as a factor of poor mental health. In terms of bereavement, it can lead to more damaging, complicated grief issues or high stress levels, particularly if an employee feels unsupported by their manager.
It does not help that death still remains one of the last taboos when we should be normalising it as a part of life. This would create more openness and understanding in recognising the impact of grief, both physically and mentally and consideration of how it can affect wellbeing and productivity in the workplace.
Be human: acknowledge the loss and offer condolences and ensure your employee knows that you will try to support them as best you can. Ask how they would like to stay in touch, check with them to see how much time off they need and agree on which reasonable adjustments can be made to help them stay productive and engaged with their work and whether they would like their colleagues to know about the bereavement. You may also need to discuss further time off if they have new or additional carer responsibilities following the loss.
Encourage and develop compassionate & skilled leadership
Train key staff such as HR, line managers and mental health/wellbeing champions to understand the impact of bereavement, how to communicate compassionately and recognise the signs that someone might not be coping. Line managers and close colleagues can play an important role by listening, observing when someone is struggling to manage and signposting for further support.
Consider your organisation’s Equality & Diversity policy in respecting individual religious and cultural beliefs and ways of mourning, and where reasonable, make allowances to accommodate.
Supporting someone through grief can be emotionally draining, also ensure that you are practising self-care and are aware of your professional boundaries.
Point staff to external resources
Organisations may have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which can provide bereavement support as well as ensuring individuals can manage their grief alongside pressures of work.
Not all organisations can offer this so you may need to signpost to bereavement charities. Bear in mind that people grieve in different ways and not everyone wants to talk, some people deal with their grief more privately eg. reading books on coping with grief, joining online support groups.
Coping with the death of a colleague
If a colleague had died, the employer should contact the family to offer condolences and agree a point of contact for all practical and financial arrangements. Consider which colleagues may be able to attend the funeral, a commemoration or memorial service to be held on a significant day. Encourage people to know they have a safe place at work to be open about they feel following the loss of their colleague or share stories and memories. If the death was traumatic or sudden, offer counselling if required.
And finally …
This year has certainly meant that we are all grieving in some way, we have each encountered the loss of normalcy as we have once known. If there is any good to have come out of all this, let it be that it has made us kinder, more compassionate and understanding of each other both at home and in the workplace.