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Paul Barrett

Bank Workers Charity

Head of Wellbeing

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Addressing bereavement at work – why it’s time for employers to act

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Last week Acas launched its good practice guide for businesses on managing bereavement at work.  Such guidance is long overdue.

How well employees are supported by their employer following a bereavement can be something of a lottery, with some disparities, even within the same organisation, in the way line managers handle bereavement and  in the levels of support made available. 

The launch of the guidance falls a long way short of the legislation some have been calling for but it is nonetheless a major step forward, providing employers with a clear but concise outline of best practice on which to base their policies and procedures.

Why is such guidance necessary?

Before taking up my current role I managed internal employee assistance programmes (EAPs) in large organisations. Over the20 years I worked in this field, bereavement  was consistently one of the most common issues brought to counsellors by employees.  Much of the time they were simply seeking help in dealing with the enormous distress their loss was causing them.

However, all too frequently it was also because their employer’s response to their grief  fell far short of what they had expected, displaying an insensitivity to their experience that  only compounded what was already a very painful experience for them.

Why should this be?

In my view the significance of bereavement on the life of an employee is often poorly understood, particularly in its psychological impact, despite it being something we will all experience at some point.

At the launch for the guidance, Robert Peston, the BBC’s Economics Editor, gave a moving account of his own loss and the excellent support he had received from the Corporation, as he began the painful process of adjusting to it. However there were also too many examples given  of insensitivity;  of employees being asked to return to work hours after  attending  the funeral of a loved one or of line managers greatly underestimating  the scale and  significance of their loss.

Indifference to stress?

My experience in EAPs suggested  that all too often the inadequacy of the managerial response is not the result of  indifference to  an employee’s distress.

It is because the manager doesn’t know what the appropriate level of support should be, or how to manage bereavement conversations with the requisite sensitivity. In some instances a manager’s discomfort meant they delayed  the conversation for too long  or blundered  through it without adequate preparation,  with predictably upsetting consequences for the bereaved.

Indeed, in the absence of any internal policies or guidelines, managers would sometimes  call the EAP to seek advice on how to handle   the situation. That’s why this guidance is so important; it gives organisations and managers the understanding and the tools to handle bereavement so much better.

Do you have a bereavement policy?

It has been suggested that 10% of employees are affected by a bereavement at any moment in time but few organisations have a bereavement policy. It is frequently subsumed within compassionate leave guidelines, with little in the way of guidance for managers on how to handle the interpersonal side of things.

Yet this really ought to be an important issue for employers. “Life after Death”, a report produced by the National Council for Palliative Care, revealed that 56% of employees would consider leaving their job if they weren’t given sympathetic support from their employer. 

Lack of support can also mean that the employee takes time off sick as they struggle with their loss and they may be demotivated on their return, whilst good support engenders loyalty and goodwill towards the employer.

Significantly the issue isn’t going to go away. The report also showed that demographic changes mean that there will be a 15% increase in the number of bereavements between now and 2035. It is clearly something businesses need to be doing well.

So what can managers do to provide good support to a bereaved colleague?   

  • A good starting point is to recognise that everyone’s experiences and needs will be different. It’s important to have a conversation with them, to find out how they are and to understand what form of support will be most helpful.
  • Some people like to return to work relatively quickly following a bereavement   but others need more time and would find it impossible to focus if they returned too soon.  Discuss this with your employee to see how they want to play it.
  • Once they have returned to work, check in with them at regular intervals; you don’t get over a major loss quickly. There are many ups and downs along the way and support at the right time makes a huge difference.
  • Remember also that there will be some significant anniversaries for them in the months and years ahead (the birthday of their loved one or the anniversary of their loss), when they may experience some difficulty, even though at other times they may  appear to have got over the worst.
  • Some workplace adjustments may also be needed. Bereaved employees sometimes find it hard if some of their work has a strong emotional component and may want to be relieved of these duties for a while. Others may need to  need to change their hours or  work patterns if caring responsibilities are complicated by the bereavement

These are just a few pointers to keep in mind. The Acas guidance offers a highly accessible set of recommendations for managing bereavement.  If they can be absorbed into organisational policy and practice they should make a big difference to how well bereavement is managed in UK workplaces. 

Sources:

ACAS Managing bereavement in the workplace – a good practice guide – http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/0/m/Managing-bereavement-in-the-workplace-a-good-practice-guide.pdf

Life after Death –  6 Steps to improve support in Bereavement  The National Council For Palliative Care    http://www.ncpc.org.uk/sites/default/files/LifeAfterDeath.pdf

Grief in the Workplace, Bereavement Care  Breffni  McGuinmess (2009)

Author Profile Picture
Paul Barrett

Head of Wellbeing

Read more from Paul Barrett