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Managing the bereaved employee


A helping handManaging the bereaved in the workplace is an area in which there has been little change over the years and for which few organisations have formal policies. Yet it is vital that the employer handles the situation correctly and with sensitivity, says Caroline Attwood.

When an employee is bereaved, in general we provide a fixed period of paid leave for dealing with the immediate necessary duties such as organising or attending funerals. Yet there is an expectation that the bereaved will quickly return to normal and ‘get over it’.

In many cases this is an unrealistic expectation that can create problems for the organisation and the employee concerned. The loss of someone to whom we have a key emotional connection is a major event and one we all will inevitably encounter. It brings with it significant emotional and, on occasions, physical turmoil.

“On average it takes an individual approximately two years to come to terms with a major loss.”

Due to a general lack of understanding, combined with a natural reluctance to get too close to the issue, we often neglect to support those who are experiencing the mental pain associated with a major bereavement and place far too high an expectation on them to make a major emotional adjustment to suit our timelines and convenience.

On average it takes an individual approximately two years to come to terms with a major loss. The path to emotional resolution is not a neat, straight one but is confusing, complex and difficult for most. However, we can have strategies to help manage the situation and support people during the process.

Let’s start at the beginning

The starting point is the event itself when the death is notified. Assessing the severity of the situation may be difficult. Shock, even when a death is expected, is a natural reaction often combined with an inability to fully comprehend and inform others of the depth of distress. The employee will usually return home if they are not already there. Ensure that you keep communication lines open so they can contact you as the need arises. Ask permission to keep in touch with a follow-up call. You may be able to build up a picture of the situation through sensitive enquiry.

If the line manager and colleagues have not already been informed of the event then this should be the next step. You may be able to use this as an opportunity to obtain a clearer picture of the situation through those who work closely with the person concerned.

On a more practical note, workloads may need to be juggled. If the bereaved is very senior this may be the time when your succession planning pays off in identifying an interim to step up to take on a role that is business critical. This not only ensures that life at work carries on as normally as possible but can also reduce the burden for the bereaved considerably whilst they deal with the situation at home.

“Ensure that you keep communication lines open so they can contact you as the need arises.”

Most organisations send cards, flowers and messages of sympathy to their employees and these are usually gratefully received and much appreciated. A word of caution though – if your company wishes to make some gesture as a sign of respect for the departed then check with the employee first – a donation to a charity may be far more useful and welcome and demonstrates sensitivity to their feelings.

Managing the legal and practical activities after death is a daunting and often bewildering task. The employee may require advice on such matters as registering the death, arranging a funeral, applying for probate or applying for the benefits to which they may be entitled. There is a considerable quantity of information available on the internet and in the form of books and leaflets from independent and government agencies. Having a small library of such items and contact details for national and local resources can be helpful.

If you have clear indications that the bereavement has been of a major nature with possible long-term consequences, some form of adjustment to the workload and objectives may be appropriate. This is particularly important where the death has thrown additional family responsibilities such as childcare onto the employee. It must be handled with considerable sensitivity to avoid any inference that the bereaved is being lax or inefficient and the emphasis must be on supporting them.

Flexible working and working from home may be a necessity for a time in some cases. Progress and results can be informally reviewed at regular intervals in order to monitor the situation and resolve any problems. Appraisals or performance reviews should take a loss into account as performance can be severely affected.

Many companies now provide counselling services and some actually have trained volunteer counsellors on site and there are numerous bereavement support organisations available to tap into; CRUSE and The Samaritans are among the most well known but there are a host of other agencies providing assistance through counselling and self-help groups, some of which are concerned with specific forms of bereavement, religions and beliefs. Knowing what is available locally and nationally will enable you to provide employees with an appropriate source of information that may make a significant difference to their wellbeing.

Strong emotions

Managing the emotional outputs of the bereaved can be a very daunting and challenging task. Employees may appear to be managing very well for a period of time only to have their often hard-earned equilibrium disturbed by something quite unrelated and insignificant. Emotions such as anger, resentment, confusion, sleeplessness, lack of concentration, and the inability to make decisions are common. Now relate these to the workplace and you have some inkling of the possible effects. Very few organisations provide any training or education on the issue of bereavement, although it could be extremely beneficial for those in a managerial or supervisory role.

“The business benefits for the organisation in providing compassionate care for the bereaved will normally produce returns in the form of commitment and loyalty.”

Putting structured processes and policies in place to manage this particularly emotive event is a part of work-life balance and best practice in manpower management. Bereavement policy can be integrated into an overall Employee Assistance Programme, providing guidelines on creating a supportive environment through positive action at a critical point in life when an employee may be under maximum stress.

Employees who are experiencing the total chaos that can result from the demise of a loved one often look to the workplace as an area where they can focus on activities that take them out of their situation in a constructive way. We can support them by providing a flexible and responsive environment that meets the needs of both them and the organisation.

The business benefits for the organisation in providing compassionate care for the bereaved will normally produce returns in the form of commitment and loyalty, the potential for disruption in the workplace is reduced and those most closely involved with the employee on a daily basis will be better equipped to cope with the situation through greater understanding.

Most importantly we will be demonstrating our recognition that the bereaved have the right to respect, consideration and concern at a time in their lives when they are most vulnerable.

Caroline Attwood has been trained in bereavement counselling by Cruse and is a member of the International Bereavement Specialists. She may be contacted at [email protected]

2 Responses

  1. Refreshingly clear
    I would also like to add my thanks for an excellent article and add a couple of things. The point about coping with the loss is a very important one and workloads should be monitored for far longer than might be expected. My brother suddenly died some years ago and my workload was not monitored at any time. If anything it actually increased. The gesture of support with flowers/cards speaks volumes and rightly, approval should be sought first with the employee. Used sensitively this can be enormously helpful with the grieving process. Travelling to/from work with a colleague can help too. With my situation my journey to work involved a 40 mile round trip by car and I was quite convinced I was fit to drive. Luckily I didn’t have an accident but after the shock wore off some three months after the death, I then realised that driving might not have been advisable. Finally, if the manager concerned is not comfortable with dealing with the bereaved employee (not everyone is) perhaps ‘buddying up’ with a trustworthy colleague for a while can help to nip any problems in the bud.
    Thanks again for such a comprehensive article. 🙂

  2. explain to Co-workers
    A really interesting article on a subject that is often hidden or not talked about.

    I would echo all that Caroline said from a personal perspective and add that it is useful to help fellow employees by guiding them as to their approach to the employee affected.

    As the article says everyone reacts differently. One of the key things I have found is that some people want to talk, some don’t so the best thing colleagues can say is I’m sorry.

    In one organisation there was a situation where the employee suffered a loss, and it was reported that after returning one of the first things they were asked was what they were having of the deceased! In that case the manager was not trained and more harm was done leading to the outburst as Caroline mentioned.

    By comparison in another organisation, we had a policy that rather than being restricitve over the amount of time off ie was it a day or two days we assessed the need based on the individual and the circumsatances of the case.

    Bereavment counselling is a great thing and I would recommend to all that you have a list of contacts / web sites with your HR intranets so either the individual themselves or the manager can gently suggest after a period of time they might find some useful information. Pushing employees almost suggests that they are suffering from some form of illness.

    In cases of sudden death CRUSE is especially useful.

    Thanks for writing such an interesting article

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