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How to support a bereaved employee
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Adapting to life after losing a loved one can be extremely challenging. Bereaved employees are prone to increased stress, difficulty concentrating and reduced productivity.

Calm and compassionate communication, a sensitivity to the impact a bereavement can have, and a proactive attempt to understand and support your employee’s needs at this difficult time can make a big difference.

By letting your employee know they have your support, you’ll help to alleviate the stress and anxiety they may feel around returning to work and minimise the likelihood that they’ll end up taking extended periods of sick leave.

You’ll also be rewarded with improved employee loyalty and engagement, not just from the individual effected, but from all your employees who see you taking steps to protect their wellbeing.

Here are 6 steps to guide you through supporting a bereaved employee.

Managing a bereavement in the workplace

1. Preparation and training

An essential place to start is with a compassionate leave policy that will help guide you and your managers in dealing with the situation.

READ MORE: What to include in a compassionate leave policy, and why you need one.

Training on how to hold difficult conversations regarding a death, and how individuals respond differently to grief, is also invaluable. Well trained managers will be better able to support employees and ensure they don’t inadvertently exacerbate their stress and anxiety.

2. Compassionate communication

It’s important, in your very first conversation with a bereaved member of staff, that you acknowledge how distressing the conversation might be for them, and how difficult and overwhelming they might find too much questioning.

Remain calm, let the employee know they have your support and that they do not need to worry about work for the time being.

3. Informing colleagues

It’s best to ask the bereaved individual what they would like communicated to colleagues and whether they’re happy for colleagues to contact them to send condolences. Until they’ve let you know what they’re happy to reveal, it’s best to explain their absence as due to ‘personal issues’.

While some employees may prefer not to discuss the bereavement at all on their return to work, others may appreciate support and empathy. Discuss with your employee what they might find most helpful.

4. Accommodate religious customs where appropriate

Show respect for the various religious requirements and customs that exist around bereavement and do your best to accommodate these. Without objective, business-based reasoning as to why you’re unable to fulfil the request, you could face allegations on discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

READ MORE: Compassionate leave for bereavement: what the law says

5. Supporting a return to work

Be aware that if an employee feels pressured into returning to work, this could exacerbate their grief and impact their mental health.

Discuss options to support their return to work, such as a phased return or working from home.

6. On-going support

Remain sensitive to the fact that even though an employee has returned to work, they may still be suffering tremendous grief. The routine and distraction of work might be serving as an essential coping strategy, rather than an indication that they’re doing ok.

Remember that the emotional impact of the death may not be experienced for several weeks or months, or that grief might be exacerbated around significant dates such as anniversaries or birthdays. This might cause someone’s work performance to suddenly start to suffer.

Take the bereavement into account if the employee breaches your company’s sickness limit, or if their performance is below standard.

Be proactive in determining how to best support an employee by keeping an open dialogue with them.

Be aware that personal circumstances may have changed for the employee and they may now have more caring responsibilities. Providing flexible working arrangements if requested may help to support the employee and retain them.

Be alert to bullying and harassment. More often than not it’s unintended, but comments from colleagues around changes to the bereaved employee’s output in work, such as how this means they have to pick up the slack, can amount to bullying and should be addressed as such.

Bereavement and employee mental health

Grieving employees have an increased vulnerability to developing depression or other mental health conditions amounting to a disability – a long-term condition that impacts their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. Remember that disabled employees have a right to reasonable adjustments, and that you’re responsible for taking appropriate action to alleviate the impact of the impairment within the context of work.

As employees struggling with their mental health can prove costly for a business in terms of reduced productivity and extended periods of sick leave, you might want to consider whether your business can assist your employees with accessing therapy if they have suffered a bereavement.

Don’t risk losing your valued employees

While it may feel simpler, and less intrusive, to avoid involving yourself in the situation, with research finding that 56% of people would consider leaving their job if their employer didn’t provide proper support if someone close to them died, there’s a very compelling case not to turn a blind eye on their suffering.

For further HR guidance and support on managing bereavement in the workplace, or creating a compassionate leave policy, our HR consultants can help.

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