Bereavement is one of the most devastating things a person will ever experience. Grief can have considerable psychological, physical and personal implications for individuals, especially for those who have the added pressure of a job. Yet many employers don’t understand how they can support a grieving employee. However, the way employers deal with employee bereavement can impact the way the person copes with their grief.
At any one time, around one in ten people find themselves directly affected by bereavement, so the chances are your team will be impacted almost every year. But research by The National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) found that 32% of recently bereaved employees complained that their employer did not treat them with compassion.
Employers need to better understand their role in supporting staff through their grief. Particularly as 56% of employees would consider leaving their job if they were not shown adequate compassion at work, according to research by ComRes for the NCPC and Dying Matters.
But such considerations should be secondary to providing a safe, and positive work environment, as opposed to one which puts employees at increased risk of bereavement-related health issues.
At any time, there will likely be an employee suffering a bereavement and requiring support from their workplace. Therefore, it’s startling that so many do not feel adequately supported at work or treated compassionately by their co-workers. But grief can have a huge impact on an individual’s physical health, as well as their mental and emotional wellbeing.
Grief is a very long process that includes a number of different phases. The Kubler-Ross Grief cycle for instance has five phases; anger, denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally, acceptance. But of course, there’s no set timetable for each of these phases and people can often waver between the phases. Often at the beginning, this includes deep shock, which can show as deep sighing and indecision. Then after a couple of months, extreme fatigue, indecisiveness, lack of motivation, anger and insecurity might develop. Later on, depression, indifference and often a loss of identity can cause further difficulties.
Some research actually suggests that grief can break a person’s heart. People who lose a spouse or partner have more chance of developing an irregular heartbeat. This becomes particularly apparent in those under 60 or when their loved one dies suddenly. The risk of atrial fibrillation, or a quivering heartbeat, was 41% higher among people grieving the death of a partner. The effects were at their most intense around 8 to 14 days after the relative had died. And it can take up to a year for the symptoms to completely improve.
Grief can often manifest itself in anxiety-like symptoms. In cases of sudden death, a bereaved person may experience physical affects often related to trauma and stress. These might include a racing heart, agitated stomach, shakes and a hypersensitivity to noise. Changes in weight, increased exhaustion, flashbacks and nightmares are also common.
People recently bereaved often experience physical symptoms and this can even include physical pain, along with respiratory issues and skin problems. The skin is the largest organ of the body. And so, when we feel anguished, in pain and stressed, skin issues can erupt. In fact, traditional Chinese medicine links sinus and lung problems with grieving.
Employers, managers and colleagues should be proactive in their support to individuals who are experiencing bereavement. This includes finding out what support the employee needs and how they would like their co-workers told about their situation. Everyone’s grief is different and unique. For some people, going back to work straight after a bereavement may be what they feel is right for them. However, other people may need to take more time and even struggle with the idea of returning to work.
Employers must ensure that the bereaved employee does not feel pressured to return to work too soon. They should also try to establish how the employee wishes for them to handle the situation at work. Find out how they would like to stay in contact and what information they would like their co-workers to know. It’s also important to check if they are happy for co-workers to contact them. Many companies have a specific policy around loss. However, employers should try to be as flexible as possible and treat each situation individually.
A discussion about when the employee expects to come back to work may not be suitable in the first few days after their bereavement. However, it’s important to slowly open discussions around what the employee does feel about returning to work. Ask them what adjustments they need to help them come back to work and any worries they may have. A phased return to work or reduced working hours initially might be helpful for them.
Give consideration to what adjustments may prove helpful such as a phased return to work or temporary change of duties. When they do return, hold regular reviews to see how they are coping and any issues they need support with. Be mindful of any changes in personal circumstances following the bereavement. This could be surrounding childcare or financial issues. And remember, an individual may not feel the full impact of a bereavement until quite sometime later. Some organisations may be able to make a referral to an employee assistance programme or external organisation for bereavement counselling.
Many employers have a bereavement leave policy setting out their entitlements. Without a policy, it will be down to the employer’s discretion as the occasions arise. But everyone grieves differently. Therefore, any bereavement policy or discretionary decisions should include a strategy tailored to the needs of each individual.
A policy should outline who qualifies for leave and how much leave they can take. It should also acknowledge that circumstances do vary and employer’s may grant additional leave at their discretion. Of course, employers will want to balance this with the requirements of the business. However, providing support to employees going through such difficult times can create loyalty and improve staff retention. It can also help reduce the risk of further impact on sickness and performance.
Not many of us will know the details of our employer’s bereavement leave until we are faced with such a situation. When someone dies, the first practical consideration will often be about confirming bereavement leave with work.
A large number of organisations now have a bereavement leave policy outlining what time people can take off work. But many organisations make it more of an ad-hoc arrangement, with details decided when the situation arises. Some larger companies like Facebook are now leading the way when it comes to bereavement leave. Employees there can take up to 20 paid days off work to mourn the death of a close relative. This ensures that the employee will return to work in a fit state to work. It also provides them with adequate time to make the funeral and other arrangements.
While figures vary from country to country, according to the Society for Human Resources Management around 85% of organisations offer paid bereavement leave and the typical policy covers between three to five days. However, the exact number of days greatly depends on whether the person who dies was in the extended or immediate family.
Tell your workplace about the situation. But only give them the information you feel comfortable to share. Sometimes the circumstances around a death are very personal. Think about how you would like your co-workers to handle the situation. Before your return, let colleagues know if you would prefer not to talk about the situation while at work. Or perhaps you may feel eager to talk about the person who died. Then let your workplace know. This will help your co-workers to know how they should act around you. But if people do ask too many questions, let them know you are not comfortable going into it at that time.
It might be helpful to give one key person the full information to help reduce any speculation. Keep them informed about funeral arrangements, time away from work, and how you feel. Let your office know if you want them to include you in e-mail correspondence so you can stay updated with workplace news. You might want to consider arranging to go into work to meet with co-workers for coffee. This can be helpful to get past those first awkward encounters and the first opportunity people can offer you their condolences. This can make it much easier for when you return to work later on. You may wish to think about returning for half-days for a week or so, easing your way back into the normal routine.
Planning ahead can help to make your return to work much easier for you. Recovering from the death of a loved one can become a long and slow process. But sometimes people find that getting back into a regular routine can become a helpful step in the journey.