There are many life moments that happen to all of us at some point, one of them is grief. The time after a loved one passes away is hard to navigate, and part of this can be trying to figure out how to incorporate their work responsibilities with grieving. Eventually people will feel as if they are ready to return to work but will be worried about this step.
As a people manager or senior member of your management team, you have the opportunity to make sure that your employees have the easiest return to work after grief. Grief specialist David Kessler states ‘They will remember how you handled this. This is a moment that will be important in employee retention’. This acknowledgement that how companies handle grief is a big part of their employee’s experience, shows how vital it is for employees and employers that it be handled with respect and consideration.
Having said this, we know that grief is such a sensitive topic, so how exactly can you help your employees experiencing grief, whether fresh or from a past loss? We’ve put together this guide that we hope will help grief become an easier subject to navigate in your workplace. Taking a person first approach and making sure that the support they may need is put in place can help to make them feel valued as a whole human being rather than just an employee. When it comes to something like grief, they will need the support quick and won’t have time or energy to negotiate much. So already having these support plans, allows for a smoother experience. Knowing that you’re able to support them at the hardest time, will make them more comfortable opening up future conversations with you.
It’s also beneficial if there is a change of higher management at any point because the new employee will be able to come in, read the guidelines and understand what the policies and procedures. Allowing them to give correct advice surrounding bereavement whenever it may be needed.
Remember, they’re still the same person
An employee’s grief should never be brushed under the carpet and ignored, but it also shouldn’t be the only thing people focus on after the bereavement. A grieving person still has a whole personality and whilst grief can be all encompassing, this doesn’t go away when a person loses someone.
Talk to them about what you did at the weekend and ask what they did. Have conversations about what they’re watching on TV at the moment, whilst also engaging them into work discussions too. This will give them a sense of normality at work and time to fill their mind with something other than their grief.
Particularly if someone has lost a person that they used to live in the same house as, having these conversations will help to replicate the everyday conversations they would have had with their loved one. No one can replace their lost loved one, but they may welcome this small talk or being brought into work discussions because it gives them a small sense of normality which can serve as a reminder that everything will be okay.
Deciding their bereavement leave
As a manager of someone that is grieving, you will be heavily involved in the process of planning someone’s bereavement leave. Whilst it might become like a standard process to you, to them, it will set the tone of how their employer supports them whilst they’re dealing with their grief.
Make sure you know how much they are entitled to and lay this out as soon as possible. A lot of people will worry about taking time off from work because they don’t want their employer to think that they won’t be able to cope. This time off though is important because it allows someone to cope with the initial loss and the funeral, without worrying about picking up their work responsibilities on top of that. They may even have the care of a child or someone else to consider as a result to the loss, which takes time and adds extra stress.
When someone discloses that they have lost someone, you have the opportunity to take a load off of them by letting them know that it is okay for them to take time off. Their responsibilities will be handled for them so they can concentrate on taking care of themselves and their loved ones.
Most workplaces offer 3-5 days off as their standard bereavement leave. One important thing you can support them with in the early days, is allowing them flexibility. If you’re able to allow them extra time off if they need it, then this will take a load off of their mind. Even if your policy for bereavement leave is only a certain period, look into how they can use paid holidays or their sick leave without it negatively impacting them. Allowing them to come back to work when it feels best will also mean that they are able to come back in at a time that will allow them to transition back to work smoother.
However, something to be mindful of is that some employees will prefer to work. They’ll take days off for the initial week or so surrounding the death but then come back into work. Whilst you have the opportunity to give them more time off if they need it, you mustn’t force it on them. Some will want to keep busy and find being around their colleagues easier than being at home, particularly if they have lost someone that lived with them.
The conversation surrounding grief is important
Grief is always going to be a sensitive topic to approach but how you navigate the conversations once the employee returns will make their experience of returning to work easier. It shouldn’t be an extra responsibility for the grieving employee to talk to their employees about how they want to be approached.
When you first find out that an employee has suffered a bereavement, ask the employee who they want to know and how. Just announcing it to everyone without finding out if this is something they’re comfortable with could send the message that an employee’s pain is no more than office gossip. If you care about their experience at work after bereavement, then keeping control of who finds out and how it is dealt with is vital.
If your employee asks that only the colleagues that will directly be affected by their absence be told, respect this. It will show them that you respect them and their private life. Everyone will have their own feelings on how many people they are comfortable knowing and when. Allow them to take control of this process and respect their wishes.
The initial death isn’t the only hard bit
When someone suffers a loss, its easy to assume that the only time that their grief will show is the early days after the loss. However, there are several days that can be hard for them after the death. Birthdays, anniversaries of the death, significant days within their connection and if the person was ill, then any diagnoses days can be hard too.
It’s important to remember that it won’t just be the days associated to the person who passed that are hard. The days that happen within their life can cause upset because they are more likely to notice the person’s absence at celebrations or during difficult times. When I graduated, I kept thinking about how my dad who I lost when I was 11, wasn’t there. He would’ve never even known that I was at university. Even though the day was exciting and celebratory, it still hurt to not have him there.
If you notice that a person who you know suffered a loss is struggling, then ask them how they are. Don’t push them to talk about something if they don’t want to but give them the space to do so if they wish. Whilst allowing them to take time off if they need it to deal with the days that are hard. This will show them that you acknowledge that grieving doesn’t end after the first few months after the loss.
An expected death is as hard as a sudden one
The way that your employees will lose a loved one will be varied. Sometimes we find it easier to understand someone’s grief if it is sudden and unexpected. However, it’s important to remember that an expected death is just as hard as a sudden one. It also adds a lot of prolonged stress and sadness whilst the person is caring and supporting their loved one.
If you know that one of your employees has an ill loved one and knows that they are going to pass away, make sure that you and their colleagues refrain from saying things like ‘well you knew it was going to happen eventually’ or ‘at least you had chance to say goodbye’. Not only does this diminish the size of their loss, but it also doesn’t consider that they have had a difficult experience before the death itself.
You have the opportunity to set the precedence for how your company is going to support a grieving employee, by starting as soon as you know that they are suffering a trauma within the family that will lead to bereavement. If you start this support from the beginning, it will show them that you care about them and aren’t just offering them bereavement support because of your job.
If they need time off to look after their loved one, it’s important to not only make sure that they can take it, but also that they take it without feeling bad about it. Times when our personal lives are difficult can be made extra stressful by trying to juggle all other aspects of our lives – including work. Although you cannot take all of the stress away, you as their employer can make sure that their job isn’t adding to the stress.
Give them somewhere to talk to you when they need to so that you can work out the logistics of their employment, whilst giving them the space to deal with their personal life at the same time. This will put their minds at rest that their job is okay and safe, so they can focus on what they need to. It also gets rid of any added stress that their job may be in danger if they take too much time off or their grieving affects their capabilities.
After they return from their bereavement leave, it’s important to be wary of how you treat them afterwards. Whilst they are not dealing with the trauma of having a sick loved one anymore, the trauma of bereavement isn’t any easier. Refrain from acting like the hard bit is over for them and they can now ‘move on with their lives’. Talk to your employees about the way they should approach the grieving employee’s return, lay down some ground rules on what to say and what not to say. Of course, grief is always going to be a difficult subject to breach but setting some boundaries from the start can help make the grieving employee’s return to work smoother.
Ask your employees to refrain from talking about the death as a relief or a chance to be happier without the added stress. Make it clear to them that this transition can be hard, and because of it being a prolonged illness or injury, there is more trauma associated with the situation than just the death itself. Whilst the death will likely be the hardest part, the employee may still be upset from watching their loved one be really poorly or getting a terminal diagnosis. We often start to process trauma after the fact so once the employee’s loved one has passed, they may start to feel more upset towards the things they had to deal with whilst they were ill.
So, give them time to process these emotions and memories, and offer support when needed. If your company has access to a bereavement counselling service or an Employee Assistance Programme, make sure that the employee knows it is there. Also letting them know that you as a member of the management team and their fellow colleagues, are there for support too. This will make the processing time and the immediate period of grief easier as they will feel supported.
Be gentle, but not too gentle
When approaching someone who is grieving, it’s important to do so with compassion and sympathy for what they are going through. You will know that they are going through a hard time, and you have to keep this in mind when you are talking to them.
However, there is a fine line between being compassionate towards someone and acting like their loss has completely incapacitated them and they’re unable to do their job. Whilst there may be times that they struggle and do need to take a break, this must be left in their control rather than having their responsibilities lessened because someone else assumes they can’t handle it.
Give them the chance to come to you and ask for that extra support but if they are just getting on with it, then allow them to do so. It’s not beneficial to distract ourselves from our trauma at all times but it definitely can help to throw ourselves into a project to feel like our grief isn’t the only thing we have going in our lives.
Keep a close eye on them and make sure that they are taking care of themselves, but don’t be too controlling with what their responsibilities are. If someone wants to come back from bereavement leave and jump back into their job at full speed, then trust that this is the right thing for them to do. Whilst their emotional state may be compromised, they’re still an adult that knows how to have a handle on things. Finding the balance between support and letting them handle things by themselves is key to them feeling like you truly care about their grieving experience.
You may not understand why a death hurts someone so much
Most companies offer bereavement leave for close family deaths and have structural support in place for when an employee experiences it.
But this forgets about a large amount of loss that could take place in a person’s life. It also assumes that everyone has a good relationship with their family. For some, that’s not the case and they have a network of people that fill these roles in other ways. According to ACAS, there is no legal right to time off if the person who passes isn’t a dependant or child.
Even if you don’t necessarily understand the relationship or why the loss hit them so hard, remember you’re there to support not understand what they’re going through. Ask them questions about the person, allow them to tell you stories and take this loss as seriously as you would a close family member. Some people were brought up by a friend or a cousin, so to them, losing them will be like losing a parent or sibling.
Give them the same amount of compassion you would someone else and make as much accommodation as you can to help them to deal with the loss. This will give them the reassurance that their loss isn’t being belittled because it’s not something that has been within your bereavement support before.
Lots of things can be triggering
Whether they talked about it often or not, your employee and the person they’re grieving had a whole relationship. Whilst you may not know all of the details of their relationship, remember that they have years of memories that can cause upset.
Even good memories can trigger emotions, so if someone seems extra sad than normal, keep in mind that it could be the anniversary of one of their memories. Wedding anniversaries, birthdays, and days that they met can be some of the big ones. However, there will be smaller memories that are more personal and intimate to them that will carry a lot of emotional weight.
Listen to these stories if they want to share them and understand why these memories are so important to them. This will allow them to open up about what they are struggling with emotionally, but it will also help the grieving person to keep their loved one’s memory going and remember the happy times.
The time they are off is important
As mentioned before, the way you lay out their entitlements for bereavement leave is important and sets a precedence for how well you are going to support them. However, the time they are not working is also a really crucial time for you to let them know that you as their employer are there for them.
Start off with something simple like offering your condolences and letting them know that you are there if they need to talk or are worried about anything work-wise. This will reassure them that they can take care of themselves without it affecting their career. If they are comfortable with people within the business knowing about their bereavement, then send them a card from the company or from their specific department so that they know that they are being thought of.
Once the initial conversations about the bereavement have happened, allow them some time to deal with what they need to. Then give them a check in phone call to see how they’re doing. This will show that you care about their emotional wellbeing but are considerate enough to let them deal with their personal stresses by themselves.
Employee benefits can be a useful tool
Whilst your standard policies and procedures can be a great source of reference for navigating an employee’s bereavement, so can the employee benefits package that they have access to. Especially if it allows them extra time off or people to talk to which are a key element in giving an employee the best support you can during this time.
Even if you aren’t dealing with this situation currently, evaluating your employee benefits package and knowing what someone could make the most use of if they suffer a bereavement will make the initial conversations easier. It will also help to make asking for support less overwhelming for the employee if they are aware of what is available to them from the beginning.
On a business level, it can be a good tool for drawing new employees in if they can understand early on that they will have this extra support in place should they need them.
Someone suffering a bereavement will always be difficult, and a delicate process to navigate. However, we hope these tips will help you as a person in a managerial position to make your employee’s experience of bereaving easier, in terms of it not having such a big impact on their work life.