Understanding and supporting employees with bereavement

sad woman looking out of the window, grief, bereavement

COVID-19 is the biggest global crisis that we’re likely to see in our lifetime – affecting people personally, collectively and professionally. Sadly, as the pandemic has progressed, more people will be dealing with a bereavement.

Losing a loved one is always hard. However, due to social isolation measures, people are experiencing bereavement differently. Many will be unable to attend funerals or be physically comforted by their friends and family outside their household, something which can be pivotal to the grieving process.

If one of your employees loses a loved one, it can be difficult to know how to help, especially if they’re still working from home. However, providing emotional and practical support at this time will help them, their family and other colleagues within your organisation.

With this in mind, it’s even more important that employers are aware of how to support colleagues during grief.

Bupa Health Clinics provides Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) for more than 334,000 colleagues from 2,500 businesses across the UK. In the first few months of lockdown, it has seen a 40 per cent increase in queries from companies seeking advice and guidance on how to support their teams with bereavement and loss.

Alaana Woods, Commercial Director at Bupa Health Clinics says: “During this incredibly difficult time it is really important that we are providing the support that employees need.

“As we’re no longer in an office environment with our usual workplace support network around us, it can be a lot harder for employers to recognise when someone may be struggling. Our emotions are so often conveyed non-verbally – through our body language, for example – it’s harder to spot when people need help.  At the same time, it can also be harder for employees to open up about how they may be feeling, without that face-to-face contact.

“In the first few months of lockdown we saw a spike in queries from companies seeking advice on supporting their employees with bereavement. Due to this national trauma, many people may experience delayed grief, meaning their loss doesn’t hit them until weeks or even months down the line.  As they may be unable to mourn properly now, we need to be prepared to support employees with their grief long after their bereavement has happened.

“This is why we’ve created a guide to help managers recognise grief and support their team members, whilst working remotely and for when we return to the office.”

Erika Gati-Howe, a Bupa EAP counsellor, outlines her top tips for supporting employees with grief: 

Recognise the five stages of grief

There are five stages of grief from denial and anger, to depression, bargaining, and acceptance. This is not a linear process and people can dip in and out of these stages. It is important to recognise that each person grieves in a very different way and at different speeds.

How a person grieves will depend on many factors and there is no right or wrong way. While managers should try and signpost to support, try not to tell them what they should be feeling or doing.

Allow time and space to acknowledge colleagues’ feelings if they wish to. Some people find it beneficial to write down their thoughts and feelings as a way of being able to express them, some find it easier to speak about them, others might use different creative ways and there will be people who may find it difficult to talk about how they feel.

Know your policies and support systems

Companies will have policies in place for bereavement, which may have been updated for the current situation.  Understanding these policies will help provide the right guidance.

Many companies may also have trained staff members or faith-based and other employee support groups who are able to speak with an employee. They may also have EAPs offering confidential advice and support. It is common that employees may not want to share their feelings with their manager or members of the same team so make sure you encourage them to use these services.

Understand where work comes in someone’s grieving process

When you first hear about the bereavement, it is important to acknowledge the loss, offer your condolences and make sure that your employee knows that work comes second at this time, that you are there to support them in whatever way they need. The manager does not need to be a bereavement and loss expert, refer the employees to expert services.

For some people, work is an important coping mechanism. It can be a welcome distraction – some people find that it provides some normality and routine, even when that is only logging on remotely. It’s especially important for managers to understand that a quick return to work doesn’t mean it’s ‘business as usual’. Consider a phased or part-time return – whatever the employee might find useful and manageable.

Be realistic

Limit your expectations of those experiencing grief and don’t assume that they’ll be able to perform at the same level straight away – even if they’re keen to get back to work. People grieve at different speeds and in different ways, depending on the circumstances of the loss and bereavement. It may be weeks or months before they’re able to perform at the level they once did.

Consider resourcing and support within the wider team

It’s often worth considering what further support can be made available to the employee and the wider team. It is important to make the employee part of this discussion and consider each person’s needs and circumstances individually. This will give the colleague affected the chance to take time off if needed, while helping others manage in their absence.

To download the manager’s guide please click here


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