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Managing bereavement in the workplace during a crisis

David Price, CEO - Health Assured

Bereavement is never an easy thing to deal with. Even when everything is going well, the sudden impact of loss can turn your whole life upside down. During a crisis, bereavement is even harder.

Sadly, COVID-19 has meant some people have been facing bereavements they couldn’t possibly have predicted—and they’re facing them with distancing and isolation in place. Spending time apart from friends, family, and loved ones has been stressful for everyone—more so for those who are grieving.

Someone who works for you may have tragically experienced bereavement during the coronavirus. Not necessarily due to COVID-19 directly—any loss in the last few months has been impacted by lockdown, distancing and isolation.

Despite these changes, people need to grieve. And grieving people need support. Here are a few ways to offer your help in a difficult time—to help people cope during a crisis.

Spot the stages of grief

You may have noticed something different about your employee. Mood changes, quietness, outbursts. These are not necessarily grief—but when they’re uncharacteristic, they can be an indicator.

People can experience a wide range of emotions after a loss. According to the Kübler-Ross model—first outlined in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ seminal 1969 text On Death and Dying—there are five stages of grief:

  • Denial, disbelief, numbness
  • Anger, blame
  • Bargaining
  • Depressed mood, sadness, and crying
  • Acceptance, coming to terms with a bereavement

There’s no right or wrong way to feel when grieving. It can be an unpredictable time, and people can feel:

  • Shock and numbness—this is usually the first reaction to loss, and people often talk about “being in a daze”
  • Overwhelming sadness, with lots of crying
  • Tiredness or exhaustion
  • Anger—towards the person you’ve lost or just a general angst
  • Guilt—for example, guilt about feeling angry, about something you said or did not say, or not being able to stop your loved one dying

Managers should learn about these symptoms of grief, so they can spot and deal with them effectively. Of course, this is especially difficult when more and more employees are working remotely. But simply having a good grasp of how people grieve makes you far more likely to spot it.

Communicate

Again, this is much more difficult with distancing and remote work—but it’s vital.

Communicating effectively, confidently and compassionately with someone who recently suffered a bereavement important. You need to demonstrate emotional intelligence, reassuring and assuaging any worries, while also ensuring your employee will be fit to resume duties as normal as quickly as possible.

Regular phone calls are better than email or IM—assuming, of course, that the employee is receptive. Ask ‘would you like me to call you again tomorrow?’—the answer will likely be yes. Offer to listen.

Offer bereavement leave

When someone is grieving, they can sometimes act irrationally or be prone to strange behaviour. If they’re not present in the office, this can be extra difficult to manage. Offering bereavement leave—while still offering those daily checkups to ensure the employee has a caring outlet for their problems—could make all the difference to both the employee and those they work with.

Be patient

Bereavement is one of the most challenging times most people can experience. And it can take a long time to recover, especially in the tragic circumstances that coronavirus has forced some people into, unable to properly say goodbye to loved ones, or share their grief in the usual way.

You may need to prepare for your employee to be absent for a while, as they recover and get back to their old selves.

A sympathetic approach will help people make the transition back to work an easier one, so ensure good communication and use your discretion.

Phased returns may be helpful in some circumstances, and flexible working requests may be necessary—for instance if an employee’s partner has died, leaving them with sole responsibility for raising their children, or if the employee has lost a sibling, leaving them with sole responsibility for caring for ill or ageing parents.

In all of these circumstances, you need to display that emotional intelligence once more and be as patient as possible. Demonstrate a willingness to be flexible and allow your employee to get their life in order with all the time they need, and they’ll reward you with loyalty.

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