How to support employees coping with bereavement


Need to know:

  • There is no typical response to loss or timeframe for the grieving process; employees will require different support mechanisms over both the short and longer term.
  • Access to external support, such as employee assistance programmes and counselling services, can help employees with the emotional impact of bereavement.
  • Bereavement training and resources can equip managers with the tools and confidence to provide appropriate support to staff.

We will sadly all experience loss over the course of our lifetime and during such times we would hope to receive support from those around us: our friends, family, colleagues, and our employer. But what steps can organisations take to ensure that they provide a framework of support for employees who have experienced a bereavement, rather than following a path of action, or inaction, that may compound their distress?

Toby Scott, communications manager at National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC), says: “The key is to treat each person as an individual; everyone’s needs are going to be slightly different based on their particular circumstance.”

It is important that organisations and line managers recognise that employees respond to loss in different ways and thus proceed in a manner that is appropriate for each individual.

Responding to the immediate situation

Employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of time off to deal with an emergency, such as the death of a dependant. Many organisations will have a paid bereavement or compassionate leave policy in place. These can give bereaved staff time to arrange and attend funeral services, although it should also be borne in mind that the amount of leave needed may vary according to the employee’s relationship to the deceased, as well as accommodating different religious beliefs and funeral traditions.

While both clear policies and a degree of flexibility can provide practical support, it is often the conversations around these processes that can make all the difference. These are not always easy conversations to have. Research by ComRes and NCPC, published in April 2016, found that 33% of respondents feel uncomfortable discussing dying, death and bereavement.

Steve Williams, head of equality at Acas, says: “Sometimes people can feel apprehensive about what to say, but it is better to engage [with an employee] and try to help than not say anything for fear of making the matter worse.”

The good practice guide, Managing bereavement in the workplace, published by Acas in September 2014, can provide guidance to line managers when one of their team members experiences a bereavement. To further equip line managers with the confidence to discuss these matters with staff, employers can facilitate access to bereavement training and resources from employee benefit providers and dedicated organisations, such as charity Cruse Bereavement Care, or the NCPC’s Compassionate Employer programme.

Sustainable support

Line managers also play a crucial role in signposting staff to support services, which can provide assistance in both the immediate aftermath of a death, as well as in the longer term. Scott says: “It might be that the worse period of grieving for an individual is six months or a year later, it might be on that person’s birthday or the anniversary of their death.”

Staff can make use of employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and helplines available through group risk benefit products to seek confidential guidance around probate and financial concerns, as well as emotional support. Counselling services can also be accessed through these benefits, with certain group risk policies also extending access to these services to an employee’s dependants.

Signposting staff to channels such as specialist external helplines, to their GP, or the support mechanisms available through workplace health and wellbeing and protection schemes, can also ensure employees have the tools to manage their own wellbeing. In turn, this can reduce absence, and help employees to remain engaged and productive at work.

David Price, managing director at Health Assured, says: “It is important that employers recognise how much of a life-changing experience [bereavement] is. Every employee deals with it in different ways, and just because somebody doesn’t perhaps take time off work, that doesn’t mean it’s business as usual.”

In some instances, flexible-working arrangements, a phased return to work or reasonable adjustments may be necessary. Benefits for working parents and carers can provide assistance, for example, if a death has resulted in an employee becoming a primary care giver.

In the case of a death of an employee, organisations will need to take a wider approach to ensure that colleagues are supported. In situations where a death occurs in the workplace, support from trauma specialists may be required. These specialists can provide individual and group support on site within 24-48 hours of the incident, and signpost staff to structured counselling services for ongoing support.