Six ways to support bereaved employees

Rebecca Mian, Head of HR at not-for-profit healthcare provider Benenden Health, shares advice on how employers can support employees going through the grieving process, for National Grief Awareness Day on 3rd December 2020.

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

Unfortunately, this topic has become even more relevant as the coronavirus pandemic continues across the UK. As a result, it is possible that businesses need to support bereaved employees in different ways, and often remotely, which can make an already challenging situation feel more stressful.

To help ease the burden, Benenden Health has identified six ways you can support bereaved employees right now.

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

As people who lose a loved one at this time undergo the typical feelings of loss, they are also 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 could affect another family member or loved one, increases anxiety and impacts the ability to grieve.

We have found in our conversations with colleagues that utilising Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) and gaining a greater understanding of local ‘care of the deceased’ policies, puts you in a more informed position to support your workforce.

 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, it would be beneficial to offer training to these employee groups.

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 sociable employee may start to avoid social situations. Keep an eye out for changes in behaviour by staying in contact with them.

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.

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.

This is backed up by Benenden Health’s most-recent research, highlighting that fewer than one in ten 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.

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.

Benenden Health has also produced an online grief hub, where employers and employees can read further material on how to manage grief in the workplace:

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