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Supporting bereaved employees

Six ways to support bereaved employees

Death is something most of us avoid thinking about but, as an employer, it is vital to consider how you support bereaved employees.

To help ease the burden, we caught up with our Society Matron, Cheryl Lythgoe, to identify six ways you can support bereaved employees right now.


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1. Understand the differences associated with a coronavirus-related bereavement

Most deaths are marred in sadness and loss but those who lose loved ones to coronavirus may have had to deal with added logistical problems that could have made it much more difficult to cope.

As people who lose a loved one at this time undergo the typical feelings of loss, they may have been subjected to the added emotions of not being able to gather to honour and celebrate their loved one’s life. All of this on top of the dread that this pandemic may have affected another family member or loved one, increases anxiety and impacts the ability to grieve.

For employers, it is important to use all the resources that are available to you to support your workforce. Employee assistance programmes (EAP) and MIND don’t often provide support in the early weeks of grief, as grief is considered to be a natural process. However do engage with mental health counsellors for prolonged grief, provide details of national bereavement services like Cruse Bereavement Care, and ensure you understand your local ‘care of the deceased’ policies. If you’re aware of how your colleague has had to manage the death and bereavement during the pandemic, you are in a more informed position to support your workforce.

The other issue that may be impacting your business is if you have lost an employee to coronavirus. This will likely have wider impacts on all your workforce as they mourn together. The way you support your employees through this process can have a profound impact on how they feel about you as an employer. Make sure you identify the groups that are most severely affected and use these tips to help them cope with the loss.

 2. 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.

3. 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. For example, they might make mistakes they wouldn’t have otherwise. 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.

4. 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.

Ensure your employee understands they have your support to attend those additional appointments such as counselling and solicitors meetings too. For some, bereavement can also change their personal circumstances. They may find they become a carer or need to find alternative care. If your employees have Benenden Healthcare for Business they can access our Care Planning and Social Care Advice service which can provide information and advice about care issues including sourcing short and long-term care.

The above can contribute to additional emotional and physical pulls – employer flexibility eases some of that psychological burden.

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

5. Remain compassionate

Once an employee is back at work, it doesn’t mean business as usual. Birthdays and anniversaries of the death of a loved one may be difficult for a colleague, so it’s important to ensure flexibility and compassion on an ongoing basis. 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 to work.

According to our research, 40% of employees don't want to talk to their employer about any health issue. If you're concerned that there could be a broader issue, explore our guide on mental health in the workplace.

6. 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, training Mental Health First Aiders is another valuable resource.

As part of Benenden Healthcare for Business 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.


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