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Grief is a normal human response to the loss of a loved one that will affect everyone at some point in their lives. The Loss Foundation previously concluded that up to 20% of a workforce could be grieving at any one time. However, the pandemic has had a devastating effect, and most, if not all of us, have experienced grief and loss over the last 18 months. However, conversations about grief are lacking in the workplace. Many businesses could also be doing more to support their workforce during these difficult times.

The effects of bereavement in the workplace

The effects of grief in the workplace can be immense. Research by Atomik on behalf of Co-op Funeralcare showed that:

  • 40% of bereaved adults felt isolated on their return to work
  • 58% felt they were pressured into returning to work after suffering the loss of a loved one
  • 30% said they needed more than a fortnight off work before they felt ready to return.

Therefore, companies aiming to create a supportive and inclusive culture need to take a proactive approach to grief management by having a plan to support bereaved employees.

The five stages of grief

The best-known description of the stages of grief is the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle: Denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally, acceptance. Although this grief cycle is relatively easy to understand, what is not clear is that the stages may not happen in this prescribed order, with some stages overlapping or occurring at the same time as others. Furthermore, everyone’s experience of grief is different and personal to them, and they will go through the stages differently to others and respond differently. Some people may become angry or short-tempered. Some may find it difficult to concentrate, which results in mistakes or reduced productivity levels. Others may become withdrawn, become less motivated, engage less in conversation than they would typically and avoid social situations that they would normally participate in.

The right to time off

Employees, or those classed as employees, have the right to time off after losing a dependant or a child (including stillbirths or miscarriages that occur after 24 weeks of pregnancy). However, there is limited entitlement to paid leave for bereavement. Further details of what employees are entitled to can be found here.

Whether companies provide the minimum entitlement or provide additional support, a company bereavement policy is a valuable resource to have in place.

Bereavement policy

Having an effective bereavement policy (or ‘compassionate leave’ policy) in place will help ensure compassionate support for the grieving employee, aid managers in having conversations with employees, ensure consistency across the business and safeguard business stability. The bereavement policy should clearly set out when bereavement leave applies, for how long and whether it is paid. It should clearly state what happens when the deceased person is not a dependant or child and if they feel they need more time off, contact arrangements during their absence and the process for returning to work. A more detailed list of what should be included in a bereavement policy can be found here. All staff should have easy access to the policy and know where to find it.

Difficult conversations

Having a conversation about bereavement is difficult and something we all dread talking about, but avoiding these difficult conversations can be interpreted as a lack of care or interest. As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that every member of your team feels supported in the workplace and here is some guidance about handling conversations about bereavement:

  • Talk to your bereaved employee with compassion and sensitivity
  • Where possible, arrange for the conversation to take place away from customers and colleagues
  • Ensure you are aware of your company’s bereavement policy and have details of other support they can access should they wish to do so
  • Never assume what is right for them but listen to understand how you and the business can best support them
  • Determine whether they would like you to inform their colleagues and whether they should acknowledge the loss
  • Try to reduce any anxiety they may have about taking time off by assuring them that you will ensure their workload and customers will be taken care of
  • If they become upset but would like to continue, allow them to talk through the tears
  • Agree on the next steps and how you will support them.

After the initial conversation, review the situation and check in on them regularly to determine what else they need from you. Agree on a process and frequency of communication during any absence and meet with them when they return to work. If they are nervous about returning, invite them to come back for a visit first. Also, consider implementing flexible working hours around their return to reduce anxiety and allow them to make personal calls/arrangements.

Spotting the signs of grief in the workplace

Not everyone will disclose a bereavement, especially if they are in denial, are very private or feel that the best way to deal with their grief is to ‘work through it’. Alternatively, people may return to work before they are ready. Therefore, it is crucial to be aware of signs suggesting that someone in your team may need support, whether due to a bereavement or another reason.

Should any employee show signs of a behaviour change, check in with them and see how they are. For an employee experiencing the symptoms of grief, a lack of compassion and support from their manager (whether real or perceived) can have a devastating effect.

If you struggle with difficult conversations about bereavement or any other matter and you would like to discuss how Delphinium can support you to develop the skills and confidence to tackle difficult subjects, arrange a free consultation now.

Time to talk

It isn’t just management that may want to avoid talking about bereavement. It is something we all tend to avoid. It can be emotional and often we struggle to find the right words. Creating a healthy and supportive environment where people feel they can discuss bereavement with a colleague helps ease the pressure on management. People value supporting their colleagues, but most importantly, bereaved employees feel supported to a greater level. This may include providing training or having bereavement conversations, or creating rooms or areas where people can go to have conversations away from the general hustle and bustle of the workplace.

Support services

There is no set period for grieving, some people need more support than others, and it can often go beyond what a manager or employer can provide. Up to 25% of people may experience sustained and upsetting effects that can affect their mental health and ability to cope with everyday life, both at home and at work.

Your company may have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that will include counselling support. If so, employees should be educated on the availability of these services. It is also helpful to have a list of support agencies and charities, along with their contact details. Here are a few you may wish to include:

If you would like to discuss how Delphinium can help you develop your employees and feel more comfortable in tackling ‘difficult’ conversations, contact us to arrange a free consultation now.

Author: Gemma Rolstone | Published 6th December 2021