Five considerations for supporting bereaved employees

Losing a loved one, friend or colleague is one of the most traumatic experiences that any of us will go through, and can impact upon every aspect of a person’s life. Although it can feel difficult to talk about death in a workplace context, it is essential to have a plan in place to support bereaved colleagues, both emotionally and practically.

Five considerations for supporting bereaved employees

We believe that a compassionate and flexible approach to bereavement shows that employee wellbeing is a company’s top priority. Here are five key areas for reward professionals to consider when dealing with bereaved employees.

1. Be prepared and know your policies

Bereavement is a sensitive topic that can often go under-discussed, and so business leaders can find themselves unprepared when it happens. Therefore, it is important for managers to keep up-to-date with company policies and the support services offered by their benefits provider. Reviewing the organisation's bereavement policy will give managers the framework to ensure grieving employees are treated fairly and with dignity. Where possible, specific training should be given on this topic.

Employees should be made aware of the support available before they need it, including services such as telephone and face-to-face bereavement counselling and how they, and on some occasions their wider family members, can access these.

2. Providing immediate support

Grief affects everyone differently, so support must be suited to the needs of the individual. Managers should make themselves available to talk, but also point employees in the direction of appropriate professional help. In particular, flagging those resources available outside of working hours. For example, helplines are often available 24 hours a day, all year round. After all, grief isn’t simply restricted to the hours 9-5pm.

The counselling support services and helplines offered by your company’s benefits provider may provide emotional guidance on managing the grieving process and resulting lifestyle changes, as well as practical support on registering a death and probate advice. The employee will not be the only person dealing with the loss, and these services may also be available to family members within the same household.

3. Offering compassionate leave

There is no statutory compassionate leave in the UK, so managers should look to their company bereavement policy for guidance. Companies usually offer between two and five days of leave following the death of a family member, but grief experts suggest that this should be closer to 20 days. If bereaved employees do not take the time they need to process their loss, it could result in a longer period of absence further down the line.

Managers should approach this process with transparency and flexibility, asking employees how they would like to be contacted and how much information they wish their co-workers to be given about their absence. An individual’s cultural or religious practices, such as mourning rituals, also need to be taken into account.

4. Managing a return to work

The amount of time that employees feel they need away from work will vary. For some, work will be seen as a welcome distraction, but it can be difficult to predict how they will cope with being back in the working environment.

By keeping lines of communication open, managers and employees can work together to formulate a reasonable return to work plan. A phased return may be a good way to prevent the employee feeling overwhelmed. When they do return, appropriate arrangements will need to be made to make sure they are supported both in the short and long term.

5. Maintaining ongoing support

Bereaved employees will need continued support as they navigate new personal circumstances. Even as time passes, it is important to be aware that certain occasions, such as the anniversary of the death, may cause difficult emotions to surface.

Organising regular check-ins will allow managers to monitor how an employee is coping and offer practical help to ease the pressure they are under. A referral to the employee assistance programme or an external counselling organisation can offer an additional level of support.

Managers should reflect on whether any adjustments need to be made to the company policy in order to better support employees in the future.

Show you care

COVID-19 has made companies appreciate how important their staff are, and how essential it is to ensure that employee wellbeing is at the top of the business agenda. Although times are currently tough for many businesses, leaders should not lose sight of the importance of workplace health and wellbeing support.

How an employer responds when an employee is dealing with a traumatic personal situation can have a significant impact: Dying Matters’ Life after Death (2014) research found that 56% of people would consider leaving their job if their employer did not provide proper support in their time of need. Death is a difficult subject to talk about, but companies that have a robust set of policies in place and provide adequate support will find that they are much better-equipped to help with staff who have suffered a bereavement.

The author is Clare Lusted, head of propositions at MetLife.

This article is provided by Metlife.

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