Managing Bereavement in the Workplace

Bereavement can be difficult — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Today’s guest post was written by Gary Bury who is co-founder and CEO of Timetastic, an independent and profitable web app for managing time off work, used by thousands of companies around the world.

Death and bereavement is a sad but inevitable fact of life and, when this happens to an employee, you need to find the best way to deal with this situation – best for the employee and best for business.

An employer isn’t obliged to pay an employee for time off for bereavement, although some company’s offer paid bereavement leave as part of the employment package. You may or may not have a clear bereavement policy in place but one thing’s for sure, your employee will require some time off and a compassionate and flexible approach to their request for leave needs to be taken.

Anniversaries, birthdays, and other special occasions are often acknowledged by companies, but how you react to a bereavement will have a big impact on the employee and is a significant factor in employee loyalty and how they feel about the company as a whole.

The first steps

So, what happens when you’re faced with an employee requesting time off for bereavement? The first thing to do is to offer your condolences and tell them not to come to work on the day the death has taken place, making sure they know that, at the moment, work takes second place. This will ease any added stress the employee may have about deadlines and work that needs to be done, while also showing them your human side and letting them know you care about their well-being.

If your employee is close to their colleagues, ask them how much, if any, information they should be given and whether it’s okay for the colleagues to contact the bereaved. While one employee may take comfort in receiving sympathy cards and flowers from their colleagues, another may find it overwhelming and intrusive, so this needs to be judged carefully. If the bereaved doesn’t want any details shared, then a simple “away for personal reasons” will be enough.

You may have an HR team, managers, or specially selected staff who are trained to deal with a bereavement situation. Nevertheless, there are certain things that should and shouldn’t be said to someone who has been recently bereaved.

What to say

It’s difficult to know what to say at these difficult times, but you need to show support, empathy, and compassion e.g. “We’re here for you”, “Is there anything we can do?” and “Would you like to talk about it?” They may not want to talk about it immediately or even in the future, but they will appreciate knowing you’re there if they need you.

What not to say

It’s because it’s difficult to know what to say to the recently bereaved that it’s easy to say the wrong thing, purely because you want to say something. Avoid using cliches and platitudes which, although well-intentioned, can appear to diminish the employee’s loss, e.g. “Time is a great healer” or “They’re in a better place now”. If you really are at a loss of what to say, then a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is enough.

Returning to work

Don’t ask immediately about their plans to return to work. As well as the time to grieve, they might be solely or heavily involved in making the funeral arrangements. There may also be cultural and religious factors to take into consideration.

Some people will want to return to work immediately, others may be mentally and physically exhausted after the stress of organizing the funeral and need extra time off to get their thoughts together. Let them know you’ve scheduled their time off in the work diary and have arranged cover to take care of anything urgent. Depending on how long they’re off, check-in occasionally to ask how they are, taking care not to pressurize them into committing to a return date. It is helpful and will be appreciated to ask if there are any times in the day when it’s best to check-in or if there are any times to be avoided such as children’s dinner- or bed-times.

Even if they do return to work quickly, this doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t still recovering from their loss – people react differently, after all, and they may simply be back at work as a distraction and to keep them busy. Bereavement can trigger or exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and this will need to be kept an eye on to avoid this turning into extended sick leave.

A phased return to work may be the correct path for some, perhaps working from home before a return to the office. Working from home for a while could particularly be useful if the bereavement has left the employee with extra responsibilities in the home, for example caring for a child or elderly relative.

When they return to work, accept that their performance may not be up to scratch immediately. A bereavement may have an impact on an employee’s sleep, concentration levels, and thought patterns, and their ability to work to their best.

However long your employee is off for, whether it’s days, weeks or months, your handling of the situation will determine not only how that particular employee regards the company, but also their colleagues who’ll be pleased to know you have the correct outlook on employee wellbeing.

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