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Five ways to support bereaved employees

Losing a loved one is one of the most devastating experiences any of us will endure. The Holmes and Rahe stress scale found that the death of a spouse is the most stressful event a person will go through, followed in fifth place by the death of a close family member. Yet despite how traumatic it is, losing a loved one is something most of us will experience at some point during our life.

It’s been reported that one in ten people in the UK are likely to be bereaved at any one time, so there is a good chance some of your workforce are dealing with this issue right now. 

Find out how our business health and wellbeing services could support both your business and employees here.

Responding to bereavement within the workplace can be challenging for many employers, but an educated and managed approach to the issue will not only help your employees but will also support the business. In their guide to Managing Bereavement in the Workplace, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) state: “A compassionate and supportive approach demonstrates that the organisation values its employees, helps build commitment, reduces sickness absence, and retains the workforce.” With that in mind, here are five ideas to help support bereaved employees and reinforce a culture of compassion in your workplace. 

1. Get to grips with the grieving process

Everyone at the company – but particularly line managers and HR professionals – should learn about the grieving process. If they haven’t had any, consider offering training to these employee groups. The Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) is a useful framework to reference. It’s worth noting that the way in which people grieve is entirely individual and it is not a linear process.  Instead of a neat set of stages which the bereaved move through in an orderly fashion, grieving is much more like a rollercoaster.  

Grief can also cause people to act differently than they typically would. For example, a usually gregarious employee may avoid social situations and a normally analytical employee could start acting irrationally. This is quite common and it’s important that they are supported throughout their grieving process without judgement.

2. Understand the role of work as a coping mechanism

As a caring employer, your first reaction to hearing of an employee’s bereavement might be to encourage them to take as much time off as is necessary. While in many cases this is very appropriate, it’s also worth understanding the important role work can play in a recently bereaved person’s life. In most cases, the loss of a loved one sends the bereaved person’s life into a state of chaotic disarray. In this context, everyday routines – such as work - can become a much-needed anchor.

That said, it’s important employers understand that while a recently bereaved employee may want to come into work, and indeed it might help them, it does not mean that they are necessarily capable of working at their usual capacity. You may want to help them reduce their workload and it would be advisable that you lower your expectations while they go through the grieving process.

3. Be flexible

It goes without saying that while some bereaved employees will want to get back to work as soon as possible, others will not. Make sure you offer flexible bereavement policies which will enable your employees to take the time they need away from work. If possible, allow them to choose the date they come back and, when they do decide to return to work, consider implementing a phased return and remaining flexible with regards to their hours.

By doing this, you are less likely to lose a valued member of staff as they will feel supported rather than pressured.

4. Remain compassionate

Once an employee is back at work, it doesn’t mean business as usual. Their line managers and even colleagues need to be sensitive to their needs and capable of spotting signs of underlying distress. Some people are particularly good at pretending everything is fine, so it’s worth line managers checking in with them on a regular basis to make sure they are coping with their work demands and making adjustments where necessary. Again, training can help line managers with this initial return back to work.

According to our research, less than 1 in 10 UK employees would confide in their employers if they were suffering with their mental health. If you're concerned that there could be a broader issue, explore our guide on Mental Health in the Workplace.

5. Provide resources

If you have the means, it can be helpful to supply relevant resources. Access to a confidential helpline manned with professional counsellors is one practical example of this.

As part of Benenden Healthcare for Business, after 6 months of joining, employees have access to a 24/7 Mental Health Helpline, where they can speak to qualified therapists and get the additional support they may need.  

Death remains a taboo subject, but if we really want to help employees through an exceptionally tough time, the British ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality has to go. By following the steps outlined above you can help foster a culture of compassion within your workplace that actively helps bereaved employees.

To discover how Benenden Health could support your business with our health and wellbeing services please call 0800 414 8179 or visit our Business Healthcare page.