How to deal with bereavement in the workplace

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

After attending a mental health conference earlier this year, I was struck by the strength and emotion shown by two particular guests, who were speaking to us so openly and candidly about their recent bereavements.

I wondered what my own response would be to a friend or colleague if they were going through a similar ordeal. Could I be supportive in a way that is both kind and helpful?

Bereavement - a taboo that we need to talk about

One speaker explained that she felt strongly it would be far better for people to respectfully acknowledge what she had gone through as she returned to work — rather than inadvertently being alienated as a result of it. 

The bottom line is that, although many people find themselves not knowing what to say, it’s usually better to say something, than nothing.

"Time and time again we hear from people on our National Helpline that they feel unsupported by their employers after the death of a loved one. This can often cause further distress at a very difficult and challenging time."
Steven Wibberley Chief Operating Officer at Cruse Bereavement Care

Now, as people have been returning to work, I feel it’s more important than ever to break the taboo and help organisations and employees understand how they can approach bereavement in the workplace. 

GRiD found that the dependants of employees with group life benefits have been paid benefits valued at a total of £56,709,154, as a result of COVID-19 between 1 January and 30 June 2020*.

This is indicative of the far reaching impact that Covid-19 continues to have on employees. It means that organisations must respond with recognition and support.

Why should employers consider bereavement? 

Indeed, what has bereavement actually got to do with the workplace?

"Over a third (34%) of bereaved employees have become more likely to leave their job than they were before. In bereaved employees aged 18-34, this figure rises to 55%. Key reasons cited for this were being seen differently professionally and personally, not seeing themselves progressing because others were worried about putting them under pressure, and 24% wanted to leave specifically because they didn’t like how the bereavement had been handled."
Research conducted by CPJ Field (a family run funeral directors)

There are a considerable number of organisational benefits** that occur when your organisation is better at helping employees throughout, and following a time of, bereavement. These include:

  • A reduced rate of staff turnover amongst those recently bereaved
  • Reduced levels of absenteeism
  • Lower levels of sickness absence
  • Strengthened corporate culture and team morale

It makes sense that supporting your employees through the bereavement process will make being at work more bearable, instead of a place that they would rather avoid. 

Organisations may also wish to consider their employee net promoter score (eNPS) in this respect. If an individual, or indeed a colleague, felt that their employer was particularly supportive, flexible or understanding throughout a difficult personal time, this could significantly impact their views of the organisation, possibly moving from a Passive to a Promoter employee. The organisational benefits of a high eNPS are well-documented.

What action can you take to best support your employees?

ACAS (an independent public body working to improve workplace relationships) has produced a guide called “Managing Bereavement in the Workplace” which is an excellent starting point for building knowledge. However, a death may have left employees facing, not only grief, but perhaps a difficult financial situation, new caring responsibilities, or a complicated role as Executor of Will. Aspects such as these must not forgotten. Our team of wellbeing experts are able to ensure that your strategy is both well-founded and holistic. 

People are unlikely to come forward and ask for help unless they already know that some support is available. This could be as simple as signposting to resources outside of your organisation such as a charity-run or free national helpline. It is likely that, even if your organisation does not have a stand-alone bereavement policy, there would be existing support pathways available that might be of significant assistance. This could include an EAP (which can offer psychological support and counselling), your Occupational Health service, (for support with fitness to work), or the embedded services that form part of your Group Risk policies. Our team can build your existing support pathways into an updated strategy.

The Kubler-Ross Change Curve^ illustrates that grief encompasses several various stages, and that people do not always move through them in a linear progression. With this in mind, it’s crucial that your bereavement strategy has an element of flexibility so that it can more effectively meet the needs of your employees. For example, different individuals may prefer different working provisions and different levels of communication. Furthermore, regularly taking feedback from your employees and then using this to develop your offering will ensure that your strategy is dynamic. 

A culture of openness will help reduce the stigma attached to asking for support, meaning more employees can receive the help that they need and deserve. This culture brings “psychological safety” to the entire workforce; something that is widely believed to be one of the five key elements which allow a team to excel. When your employees feel that they are free to choose to be open about difficult or personal issues such as grief, the whole workforce will benefit from this cultural shift. Focus groups have found that it is important to employees that their colleagues are treated fairly.

If line managers are equipped to approach difficult issues, in an empathetic way, this will really help to ensure that employees feel supported. They should also be able to signpost employees towards the resources and support that the company offers, as well as provide more long-term soft support; for example by having an awareness of bereaved employees who may be particularly sensitive on anniversaries, birthdays and other significant dates. Therefore, training up line managers with the necessary skills and knowledge is an essential part of your bereavement strategy. Even a simple, concise list of “dos and “dont's" would make an excellent starting point.

"Just under half (46%) of employees were not aware of their employer having a policy or support in place for employees experiencing bereavement."
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)

Taking the next steps

Overall, it’s crucial to remember that bereavement is a long term process; being back at work does not mean that the individual’s life is back to “normal.” By offering a supportive, holistic bereavement strategy, both your employees and your organisation will benefit hugely. 

For more information about the topics discussed in this blog, or for help in building a strategy to address this issue, please contact the author below or our Workplace Wellbeing team. Contributions were also made to this article by Katie Tillyer, Benefit Consulting Analyst. 


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^Kubler-Ross Change


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