Supporting your employees through bereavement

Management and mental health expert Amy Armstrong offers her advice on how best to counsel your co-workers.

Supporting your employees through bereavement

“Nothing in life is certain, except death and taxes,” – it’s a saying that will ring particularly true with HR professionals who are sometimes tasked with handling both.  But while duties and dues can be a headache, helping someone through bereavement can have a huge impact on their wellbeing – so how do you best support your staff in their time of need? According to management and mental health expert Amy Armstrong, there are six steps you should follow.

  1. Recognize the stages of grief

Learning about the grieving process will help HR practitioners understand what individuals are going through and enable them to respond with compassion, says Armstrong.
Psychologists Kübler-Ross and Keller describe the five stages of grief – beginning with denial then anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. However, Armstrong stresses that each person grieves in a different way and at different speeds so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
“During the grief process, individuals may behaviour out of character,” adds Armstrong. “This can be part of the grieving process for some people, so it is important that colleagues do not judge or criticise seemingly uncharacteristic behaviour.”

  1. Be aware of the role work plays

For many people, work is an important coping mechanism that can provide a welcome distraction and much-needed routine, especially in the early stages of grief. However, Armstrong says it’s important that managers realize a quick return to work doesn’t necessarily mean business as usual.
“Work may be part of the coping process, so limit your expectations of these individuals and do not assume that they will be able to perform at the same level straight away,” advises Armstrong. “It may be weeks, months or years before an individual is able to perform at the level they once did.”

  1. Be flexible and treat people like adults

Line managers should be empowered to flex bereavement policies, says Armstrong, allowing individuals to take the time away from work that they deem appropriate.
“By treating people as adults and giving them the choice, most people will return to work within a timescale that is acceptable to the organisation,” says Armstrong.  
Research has also suggests that a companies with compassionate bereavement and sickness policies have more committed employees and a higher retention rate.

  1. Create a ‘safe space’ to talk

“Unless there is a safe environment at work where employees can openly express their emotions without fear of judgement or reprisal, grief can become ‘stifled’, and individuals may be unable to complete the grieving process,” says Armstrong.
“Work to create opportunities for individuals to speak in confidence about their grief experiences,” advises Armstrong. “Having someone you trust and can confide in at work can significantly aid an individual’s recovery. “

  1. Recognise that line managers are pivotal in the healing process

Dealing with death can be an uncomfortable situation for all involved but it’s not one to be shied away from. Armstrong says managers need to be proactive in supporting grieving individuals – they should ask them how they would like to be supported and how their situation should be communicated to others.
She recalls an instance when a well-meaning manager chose not to inform the team that a fellow employee had experienced a bereavement - believing he was respecting confidentiality. However, when the individual returned to work and nobody acknowledged his trauma, he assumed everyone was trying to avoid a difficult situation. In this circumstance, there’s a harmful disconnect in the team that could serve to further alienate and upset the grieving employee.

  1. Remain vigilant

“Remain sensitive to any underlying signs of distress,” suggest Armstrong. “Despite appearing to perform as normal on the surface, some individuals struggle for a long-time after a bereavement.”
Following bereavement, some employees may experience ongoing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression – it’s important that managers remain vigilant to the possible side effects.
Confidently coping with bereavement in the workplace is essential for the wellbeing and happiness of your team. Getting it right is an important step in improving employee retention and company culture.


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