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4 steps for navigating bereavement in the workplace

Bereavement can often be too difficult to talk about openly in the working environment. Yet what happens when an employee loses somebody close to them, or even, if a colleague were to pass away? Would you know how to support them and handle the situation? 

Bereavement can often be too difficult to talk about openly in the working environment. Yet what happens when an employee loses somebody close to them, or even, if a colleague were to pass away? Would you know how to support them and handle the situation?

Employees could be faced with the passing of a colleague, family member, friend or even, someone they provided care for. It could be from a long-term illness, an accident, COVID-19 or perhaps from a sudden and unexpected health condition.

For many employers it can be difficult to know how to respond and support employees through bereavement, you’ll probably be asking yourself, how do you support your employees?

For some people, work is an important coping mechanism. It can be a distraction and provide a sense of routine during distressing times. Whilst work may be part of the coping process, it’s important for line managers to understand that they may not be able to perform at the same level straight away. Here are 4 steps to supporting employees through bereavement:

1. Acknowledging the loss
Firstly, speak with your affected employee or the deceased’s family. Existing social restrictions could make it harder to deal with grief and provide support, but it may be appropriate to send a card, flowers or a donation on behalf of the business to a cause or charity.

If a colleague has passed, then perhaps one of the hardest aspects will be to tell your team. You’ll know which type of communication will be best – whether that’s a phone call or collective Teams meeting – whichever communication route you go down, ensure that they are told quickly to prevent second-hand news spreading throughout the virtual office.

2. Time to digest the news
The emotional toll of losing someone will affect people differently – anger, relief, guilt, depression…

Provide space and time for your team to digest what has happened. They may need some time off to deal with this news – have you thought about the process for this and how to re-distribute their workload if they need space?

Ensuring that you have a process in place with appropriate support can help facilitate recovery. If they don’t want counselling services now, then they may do in a few months’ time. Do you need to look at additional counselling benefits? Do staff know how to access their EAPs (if applicable)? Above all, let them know that emotional support is open for all and their mental wellbeing is a priority.

3. Compassionate leave and funeral arrangements
Current funeral rules are changing in-line with evolving COVID-19 regulations so it’s likely your team or employee won’t be able to attend in person.

Bereavement leave isn’t a lawful requirement but often, businesses will have their own procedures and measures in place for allowing time off. Of course, this is discretionary but remember to let your team know who to speak to and where to look to find your basic bereavement policy (say, in your employee handbook).

You could enhance your bereavement leave to include carers, whether that looks like paid leave for 1 day or 1 week. It may be best practice to update your policies to include COVID-compliant responses and considerations.

“We don’t specify a specific number of days but what we aim for is to agree an approach that is right for the specific circumstances.” Andrew Gueterbock, Chief Operating Officer, Reframe Providing financial help

Is death in service part of your employee benefits package? If so, how quickly can this be turned around if they need help paying for the funeral? Alternatively, could you offer to fund a certain amount towards funeral costs as a gift on behalf of the organisation?

For carers, they may have practical arrangements to make, such as registering the death, arranging the funeral and dealing with their personal effects and affairs. If you’re unable to offer paid leave, could you be flexible with unpaid leave? Small and thoughtful gestures like these will help your employee feel stable and secure at work whilst they’re going through these emotions.

4. A culture fit for the future
How you choose to handle and communicate bereavement will largely depend upon your culture. Ensuring you have a process, communication templates and a compassionate leave policy in place will enable you to act quickly whilst allowing you the time to tailor to individuals’ circumstances.

“Difficult conversations are never easy to have but experience tells us that by being empathetic, considerate, compassionate, open and honest is more likely to result in employees engaging and respecting decisions made.” Deborah Critchley, Clinical Adviser, Reframe

Find out more about how Reframe can help you develop a more resilient workforce.


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