Bereavement, grief and mental health in the workplace - a personal account

If we want to do more than give lip service to mental wellbeing in the workplace, then we should try to be more open about our own mental wellbeing at crucial times, if only to set an example to those colleagues who find it hard to speak about what they are going through.

Bereavement, grief and mental health in the workplace - a personal account

This week I laid my dear partner, Roger, to rest after an unexpected passing at age 49. My own mental health is in tatters, but I am privileged to be well supported.

But it has caused me to ask: how do you support grieving colleagues in the workplace?

No one knows what to say when your loved one has died

It is better to blunder in and say something rather than nothing. Most people tend to say: “I don’t know what to say, am so sorry” – and that is fine.

Others ask: “How are you?” Then say: “That is a stupid question to ask.” But that is fine too.

In a work context we may feel that saying something is an intrusion into a colleague’s personal life. But we are all human beings with feelings, not robotic colleagues. So reach out if you see the person, just a few words will help (and do not panic if they cry, just give them a tissue).

Every text, WhatsApp, email or card arriving is like a little parcel of support

These are often easier to send if you are not close friends with your colleague who is mourning. At first the messages come in a flood, and can be overwhelming. As the days and weeks go by, the person treasures each one more because they become less frequent. And the unexpected ones from colleagues and acquaintances are surprising delights (for me anyway), often sharing something you did not know about the sender.

The best supporters are those who continue to send a few words every few days – so if you are friends set a reminder to send messages regularly.

Nothing beats family – but what is family?

Many workplace policies stipulate very clearly how long compassionate leave is for each level of familial relationship. A good line manager or HR department should completely ignore these policies, and work on a bespoke plan for each employee. Managers out of their depth doing this will need support from more experienced line managers.

Many people do not live with the traditional family structure, and their nearest and dearest may not be mentioned in any policy. Please be sensitive to this, life and relationships are complicated.

A grieving brain is numb and exhausted

For some, grief hits straight away, for others it takes days, weeks or months. This is difficult for the person experiencing it because they cannot possibly tell their employer how long they will be off for. Or be able to book off time ready for when the next wave of grief hits – they simply do not know.

It is frustrating for employers too. But keep communication open. Message or call at least once a week as a minimum. Provide access to bereavement counselling; simply understanding from a professional how humans process grief can help people come to terms with what has happened more quickly, and why they are unable to concentrate, are so tired and have no mental resilience.

Body wrenching grief is very good for you

Or at least massively better than holding it in and keeping a stiff upper lip. Keep a close eye on those who return to work very quickly; they themselves might not be self-aware enough of the importance of grieving well.

Allow the grieving person to be honest about why they cannot make it to work some days. It will be a huge pain for your team, but the alternative is someone feeling forced to lie – either way, they will not be working properly that day, to everyone’s detriment.

How to do “Just let me know if you need anything” well
Colleagues and friends are often great at offering to help as soon as they hear the sad news, but often cannot know what support is needed. But the grieving person will not remember everyone who makes this offer (at this time, your short-term memory is a mess).

So, if your initial offer is not accepted, make a note to re-make the offer after the funeral, or a month down the line or two months (or even longer). It is when things go quiet and life goes back to ‘normal’ that your colleague may have the mental space to know what support they need, and be able to appreciate your offer even more.

And finally…a reminder:

  • Give time to others - nothing on earth is more valuable.
  • Life can be short so grab the opportunities while you can.
  • Don’t wait for conditions to be perfect, life (including work) is always messy.
  • Do not regret, there is no point.
  • Love survives beyond death.

Bereavement is not often spoken of in workplace mental wellbeing strategies, but it is sadly very real. All of us will experience a colleague going through it at some time, and most of us will experience it while of working age. It will become more common as our workforces age. Let’s aim to improve how we deal with it.

I’d like to say a special thank you to my wonderful REBA colleagues, contractors and friends – you have all been amazing support in your different ways.

Debi O’Donovan is director of REBA.

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