How organisations can better support bereaved employees

Bereavement is an issue that will impact most of us, and it can be overwhelming, particularly when someone close to us dies. In my 10 years working as bereavement counsellor, I have learnt a lot about how people deal with bereavement and it is my view that organisations could do more to support their bereaved employees.

Vicki Badham

This can be achieved in three main ways:

Providing more flexibility on when compassionate/bereavement leave can be taken; Most organisations currently offer 5-10 days of paid leave to employees impacted by bereavement although some like Facebook have recently extended this to 20 days. I have found that in practice, the stated policies can be more flexible than this, often depending on the manager. However, the expectation tends to be that employees will take off this time immediately after the bereavement.

In my experience, for most people the immediate days following a death are full of shock and numbness and are also characterised by lots of support from friends and family. There is often an urge at this stage to achieve functional normalcy and for many people, this is reflected in them wanting to return to work sooner rather than later.

It is actually later on in the grief process when lots of people feel more isolated that their struggle with grief is greater, at which point many feel that it is “too late” to take time off work. Therefore, if organisations could support and promote leave being taken off at any stage during the first year and even beyond, this would encourage employees to take the leave when they need it.

Offering specialist counselling support to employees: The EAP schemes provided by the vast majority of employers typically include a counselling service. However the feedback that I have heard from my clients is that EAP counsellors do not necessarily know enough about bereavement and are, therefore, less able to support people dealing with death. This is not to say that there aren’t EAP counsellors who can deal with bereavement but in the same way that addictions or phobias often require a specialist set of skills, so does bereavement.

Training to employees on how to deal with bereavement; As a society, we are progressively becoming more open about dealing with death, which is of great benefit to those struggling with bereavement. Clients often share though how they feel that people avoid the subject when actually they want their grief to be acknowledged. Providing training to employees on how to deal with bereavement and to make it clear that people respond to death in very different ways will better equip employees to support their colleagues who are bereaved.

Ultimately, there is no ‘easy way’ of getting through a bereavement, and for many people dealing with death can be the hardest thing that they have to go through. Employers can play a role though in adding support rather than making bereavement harder and this is crucial at a time of great upheaval and anguish.

Vicki Badham is a BACP accredited counsellor and bereavement specialist. 

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