How to support your employees through bereavement

Written by
Kelly Feehan

17 Feb 2016

17 Feb 2016 • by Kelly Feehan

Support in difficult times

1 in 10 people in the UK will be affected by a bereavement, so it is likely that all HR managers will have to deal with such a delicate situation at some point in their career. It may well be left to HR managers to handle the situation, advising both the employee and their manager and finding a solution that is suitable for both the employee and business needs.

How a business handles a bereavement will make a significant difference to the bereaved employee’s mental health and how they handle their loss. But it’s not just the employee who will benefit from a good bereavement policy; it will help staff retention rates, productivity for bereaved employees and helps to mitigate any effect on co-workers. 

Understand how your employee will grieve

The grieving process isn’t always linear, but usually has distinct stages. Not all people will go through all of the stages, but recognising when an employee may be experiencing a particular emotion will allow HR managers to respond effectively and sensitively. It is generally accepted that there are 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

During the denial stage, the affected employee may well be in a state of shock, wondering how they can process the information, and indeed get through the day. If and when anger develops, it could be directed at almost anyone, whether it’s a doctor, a different family member, or somebody who didn’t respond as the employee would have liked them to. While it may appear irrational from an outsider’s perspective, it is crucial to respect this as an important part of the healing process. The next recognised stage is bargaining, which can see the employee trying rediscover equilibrium. 

If or when the employee starts to experience depression, it could be incredibly difficult for them to engage meaningfully or concentrate on anything outside of their immediate situation. This is a perfectly normal reaction, and it is important to meet it with patience and understanding. Finally, after moving backwards and forwards between all or some of these stages, the employee may reach a state of acceptance. While this doesn’t mean they are alright, it may mean that they are able to look forwards and readjust to their new circumstances. If you are communicating with a bereaved employee, try to consider how they may be currently grieving, and speak to them accordingly. 

Consider your employees relationship with work

Some people like to stick to their routine when they are experiencing a bereavement, to act as a distraction or to try and regain control while they are in flux. Others will want time and space to themselves before they return to the office. The closeness of the loss may also affect the grieving process. Grieving for a spouse or child might be different from grieving for someone who is not a close family member. However the employee reacts, it’s important to acknowledge that being back in the office certainly doesn’t mean things will be back to normal for them, or that they will be able to work at full productivity or with consistency. Try to make reasonable adjustments for the employee and allow them to tackle tasks at their own pace. 

Check in regularly

Making sure your employee knows that somebody is around to talk to is important, so they don’t feel they are dealing with their grief alone at work. Although employees will often try to be strong at work, and not show their weakness, they still need to know that there is an outlet for them. Creating regular opportunities for conversations allows the employee the opportunity to offload, and the line manager the opportunity to understand how the employee is coping with their workload and the grieving process as a whole. 

Let employees dictate support levels

Rather than assuming a one-size-fits-all approach to bereavement, HR managers should help individual line managers discuss support with the bereaved employee. Everyone reacts differently to grief and will need different levels of support. Some support may be emotional, in which case there needs to be somebody on hand to talk, but some may be practical. The loss of a spouse may mean an employee now needs flexible working hours to collect children from school, and the loss of a parent may mean an employee needs to work different hours to care for an isolated elderly relative. Approach each bereavement individually to find a solution that suits both the employee and the wider team. 

Don't accept appearances as truth

Grief lingers, and a bereaved employee will have days when they cope differently, which will often continue for the foreseeable future. HR managers should keep an eye on the employee long after the bereavement, and not accept the employee’s mental health at face value. Be aware of any signs of distress, such as irritability, anxiety or increased isolation, and be on hand to provide a safe space for any conversations with the employee. 

Dealing appropriately with a bereavement is a crucial factor in ensuring the employee feels comfortable to return to work, and eventually feels ready to work with motivation and at full productivity.