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Paul Barrett

Bank Workers Charity

Head of Wellbeing

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Bereavement at work: How employees provide support

In support of Grief Awareness Day, Paul Barrett examines standard policies for supporting Covid bereavements and how NatWest has got it right.

Even before the relaxation of pandemic restrictions, business thinking turned to how to facilitate a return to the office. For most corporations, remote working will have been in place for almost a year and a half before staff return in numbers, so companies have had plenty of time to explore future working arrangements. 

With some businesses anticipating a late summer return, it’s natural that planners should be thinking about how that return will be managed, especially as some form of social distancing is inevitable. Thankfully, their thinking is incorporating much more than simple office logistics. 

Employers are having to focus on the human element too. After so long out of the office and perhaps still fearful of the social distancing implications of a crowded commute, staff will be coming back with considerable apprehension. Credit goes to businesses who are taking steps to address employee fears and concerns, with many consulting staff directly about how the return is managed. This is something we welcome at Bank Workers Charity. 

Laudable as it is that companies are prioritising employee welfare, there is one aspect of the return that I have barely heard mentioned – and yet it’s likely to have a huge impact and one I fear most companies will be woefully unprepared for.

Covid loss is likely to be much more complex because the bereaved have so often been denied the opportunity to participate in the normal mourning ritual.s

Bereavement and the grieving process

Large numbers of employees have lost family members and close friends during the pandemic and will be returning to the office in the middle of their grieving process. The loss of someone close is always difficult to bear, with a physical and emotional impact that can take months, sometimes years to work through. 

Moreover, the nature of a Covid loss is likely to be much more complex because the bereaved have so often been denied the opportunity to participate in the normal mourning rituals that are central to a healthy grieving process. Some will have been unable to visit dying relatives, perhaps having only the briefest contact by phone. 

Others will have been denied the opportunity to say any final words. Of course, the restriction on numbers at funerals have meant that even participation in this most fundamental of mourning rituals was unavailable to many. This has likely caused a much more traumatic, painful and extended grieving process, which is what grieving staff returning to the office in the months ahead are likely to be experiencing.

Special Leave Policy

The UK workplace doesn’t have a wonderful track record in supporting employees through grief. Only a small number of organisations have bereavement policies in place. Bereavement is usually incorporated within the standard Special Leave Policy, which typically leaves the kind of support a bereaved employee receives, to managerial discretion. 

It means significant discrepancies can arise in the quality of support employees experience, often the determining factor being whether or not they have an empathetic boss. But there are some forward-thinking businesses that have taken steps to support bereaved staff. 

I’ve been especially impressed with how NatWest Group has addressed the problem. Even pre-pandemic, the bank had made some impressive resources available to bereaved employees. On the Bank’s wellbeing intranet site there is a bereavement hub that contains a range of resources to support bereaved employees

NatWest Group bereavement policy

NatWest Group’s approach to bereavement leave is far-sighted and includes leave not just for the loss of immediate family members but for other significant people in the employee’s life. Also, recognising the key role that line managers have in supporting bereaved employees, and in an effort to drive consistency in how loss is handled across the bank, they have created a bereavement guide for line managers. 

There is also a workplace support group for bereavement. It’s a closed group that operates via the Bank’s internal social media (Facebook for work). Using it, employees can share their experiences and gain peer support through postings on the site. 

But the most innovative, and perhaps successful, of all the bank’s initiatives emerged during the pandemic. The Bereavement Cafe opened for the first time in February 2021. It meets virtually so NatWest employees from across the UK are able to participate. 

It allows anyone touched by bereavement to meet, offer mutual support and share experiences and helpful resources. The café is open monthly, and participants can join as often or as little as they wish.

The Bereavement Cafe

The idea for The Bereavement Cafe arose when four members of the Bank’s HR team met to discuss their own experiences of loss and recognised there would now be many more people in a similar position, as a result of the pandemic. They found sharing their experiences so helpful, they decided to test the water and extend access to other employees. 

The response far exceeded expectations. Promoted on the bank’s social media channel, the café attracted over 50 employees. Many have returned for subsequent sessions and new participants have joined. 

Interestingly, whilst attendees mostly comprise those experiencing recent loss, they also include employees who have been grieving for between 7 and 20 years – a reflection of the protracted nature of some bereavements. However, this breadth of experience adds enormously to the quality of peer support available to participants.

People often process their grief by retelling their story.

Providing consistent support

Chloe Corr is one of the bank’s wellbeing team and one of the management group that runs the café, which meets every two weeks to oversee the project. She explained that the café is explicitly not a therapy group, and this is spelt out at the beginning of each meeting.

Occasionally, of course, people do get emotional as they listen to, or share experiences – so participants are reminded of the psychological support services available through the bank, should they be needed. And if any employee does become distressed, one of the café’s management team checks in with them to see how they are and to reiterate the support on offer after the meeting.

Feedback from the sessions is impressive. Breakout rooms are very popular as they allow participants to have more intimate conversations away from the full group. It is also clear that involvement has proved a positive and cathartic experience. 

People often process their grief by retelling their story. But some attending the sessions have said that it’s hard to continue sharing with family members who are trying to come to terms with their loss. At the same time, they don’t want to overburden already sympathetic friends. So, the café provides the perfect forum for relating their experiences and here they are guaranteed a supportive audience. 

With bereavement still barely featuring in many companies‘ wellbeing offerings, it is great to see some businesses recognising the need to give it greater emphasis. NatWest Group’s Bereavement Café has been a huge success. And at a moment when workplace wellbeing has never been higher on the business agenda, it is a timely reminder that some of the very best wellbeing initiatives arise from the enthusiasm and imagination of committed employees.

Interested in this topic? Read ‘How managers can support employees with bereavement.’

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Paul Barrett

Head of Wellbeing

Read more from Paul Barrett
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