Saying goodbye: How to support an employee through loss

The annual cost of grief in the workplace is estimated at A$101 billion

Saying goodbye: How to support an employee through loss

Earlier this year, Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, made the brave decision to tell the world about her miscarriage.

"I knew, as I clutched my firstborn child, that I was losing my second,” she wrote in an emotional editorial in The New York Times.

The piece sparked a global response, with many leaders lauding Markle for her honesty dealing with an issue many people feel uncomfortable broaching.

Whether it be a miscarriage, the death or a parent or a friend, dealing with loss on any scale is emotionally, and mentally, exhausting.

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According to the Grief Recovery Institute, one in four employees is grieving at any given time – with 30 days lost per grieving worker each year.

What’s more, grief has the propensity to derail employee morale and work ethic, if handled in a poor manner. The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation estimated annual cost of grief in the workplace at $75 billion (A$101 billion) – lost primarily in productivity.

The toll of handling bereavement alone, without the support of management, has a devastating impact on health – ultimately being linked to depression and cardio-vascular disease.

In the face of such worrying data, it’s high time employers step up.

After all, when it comes to your people, you have a duty of care to guide, safeguard, and assist staff through the darkest of times.

“Ensure that you have communicated with all employees about this topic before grief and loss occur,” Dr Melanie Peacock, associate professor of HR, told HRD.

“It’s important for employees to understand the grief process, how the organization will support employees, what resources are available in advance.

“During a time of grief, a person has enough to deal with, is not at 100%, and therefore should not be learning and researching how to obtain support while experiencing grief and loss.”

What to say when you first find out

The first step is handling the initial revelation. When an employee approaches you and explains that they’ve lost a loved one, take them to one side and sit them down. Oftentimes, people resort to ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ – which is polite and kind, but not exactly constructive or helpful.

Instead, ask ‘how can I help you?’ or ‘is there anything you need from me?’. In the case of a miscarriage, it’s important you encourage and support the employee in getting the correct medical attention.

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It may be that the employee has a plan of action in mind – perhaps they need clarification on how much leave they’re entitled to or whether or not they can work remotely for a while.

It’s all about catering to the individual needs of the employee – not rolling out blanket terms and corporate jargon.

Approaching bereavement policies

Bereavement leave may differ from company to company - under the National Employment Standards, all employees are entitled to two days of compassionate leave on the death of a relative or household member.

This leave does not have to be accrued and should not be taken from sick leave or holiday allowance.

Aside from statutory leave, it’s up to individual company policies how much time you can offer the employee.

Many employers may offer additional unpaid days off to help employees deal with the grief and take care of immediate concerns, such as funeral plans and the reading of the will.

Employers have no legal obligation to pay any more than those two days – though you may choose to depending on the circumstances.

Employee assistant programs (EAP)

Research from Professor Andrew Clegg found that 25% of widows and widowers will suffer from clinical depression and anxiety during the first year of bereavement.

This is where investing in Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) really take precedent. EAPs will normally offer services such as support groups, psychologists, and grief counselling.

Depending on which EAP provider you chose, the packages and resources will change. The main issue to look out for when selecting a provider is flexibility – try to avoid programs which have too many restrictions as this will make it difficult to mould the packages to specific needs.

Assistance programs may also help employees understand what they’re entitled to. For instance, in Australia, employees who have lost partner may be entitled to a Bereavement Allowance for up to 14 weeks.

The payment is instead of the employee’s normal salary, not as well as, and must be assessed on an individual basis.

Miscarriage leave

When it comes to miscarriage, the law changes.

Australia currently doesn’t offer paid leave should an employee lose a baby – something which many activists are trying desperately to rectify.

The Pink Elephants Support Network has been extremely active in lobbying the government to change the law, to give employees paid time off to deal with their loss.

Writing on their site, the charity explained their mission: “Access to paid bereavement leave after a miscarriage will offer couples the leave they deserve and need in order to feel validated in their grief.

“It will also provide them with the time and space to access emotional support from an organisation such as ours.

“We are incredibly proud of this initiative which with your support can revolutionise the support that Australian women and their partners receive after experiencing the heartache of early pregnancy loss.”

An employee is entitled to ‘special maternity leave’ – which is unpaid – under certain stipulations:

  • a pregnancy-related illness or
  • pregnancy ends after 12 weeks because of a miscarriage, termination, or stillbirth

This leave will continue until the employee is fit to return to work.

Welcoming the employee back to work

There’s no standard measure of time to delineate when an employee should come back to work.

Some people may find the workplace a much-needed distraction – for others, the grief may not subside for weeks, months, even years.

As a leader, you need to recognize the individual’s needs of the employee.

Throughout their bereavement leave, try to reach out at least once and offer your assistance again. It’s important HR doesn’t harasses the employee in returning to work, or continually ask when they ‘think’ they’ll be ready to come back into the office.

“Reach out to employees who are grieving,” added Peacock.

“These are difficult conversations but need to occur. People need to know that others recognize their grief and are willing to support them. This necessitates training so that others know how to do this.  For many, this is not a natural skill or competency.”

Cultivate a safe space

A report by the National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) found that 32% of grieving employees felt badly treated by their employer, with 56% of staff claiming they’d quit if their employer didn’t treat them well during a bereavement.

How you care for your employees during this period of grief will resonate with them for years afterwards.

Fostering an open and transparent culture will also make people feel like they can bring their true selves to work. By cultivating this safe space, employees know they don’t have to ‘put on a brave face’ in fear of making colleagues uncomfortable.

Remember – all may not be as it seems. People deal with grief in different ways. Just because an employee isn’t showing ‘typical’ signs of grief doesn’t mean they’re not struggling.

Allow employees the space to be sad – both at home and when they return to work – and they’ll pay you back in loyalty, productivity, and appreciation. 

“Grief and loss are typically seen as bereavement when someone experiences death of a loved one,” Peacock told HRD.

“However, grief and loss are a much bigger concept.  People experience this when their co-workers' employment is terminated. 

“People are experiencing grief and loss because of COVID-19 and new working arrangements. 

“Organizations need to review these concepts through a much broader strategic lens, have open communication with employees and ensure that mental health is being addressed and supported.”

Key Takeaways

  • The annual cost of grief in the workplace is estimated at $75 billion (A$101 billion)
  • 32% of grieving employees felt they were badly treated by their employer during a bereavement
  • HR leaders need to invest in all-encompassing, flexible, EAPs to help support grieving employees
  • There’s no standard measure of time to delineate when an employee should come back to work – employers should approach each case on an individual basis

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