Dealing with Bereavement in the Workplace

Supporting Bereaved Employees. Don’t leave it all to your EAP to deal with.

It’s a fact. Many people struggle when it comes to interacting with a colleague who has suffered a bereavement.

Bereavement is not something that is neatly addressed by a few days compassionate leave and then everything goes back to normal. For the person who has suffered the death of someone they care about it’s only the start of a process that could, and probably will, continue over many years. The impact of course is generally most pronounced and acute in the early months but grief has a habit of sneaking up on the bereaved from time to time throughout their lives, challenging coping mechanisms and causing pain.

So when someone returns to work after the death of a loved one things have changed significantly in their world and they are having to deal with a new world order that can affect them physically, emotionally and in terms of their perspective on life and work.

I think one of the most important things we can do is to recognise and accept that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is no standard length of time before things get ‘back to normal’. Everyone is different and everyone deals with grief in their own way and at their own pace.

 

Managers and colleagues should not of course attempt to take on the role of grief counsellor for an employee who has experienced the loss of a loved one. However, there are ways to be supportive in the workplace.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt from the Centre for Loss and Grief gives his advice how best to support a bereaved employee when he or she returns to work.

  • Talk to them and ask the grieving employee what you can do to help.
  • Be open to the employee’s need to talk about their loss.
  • Learn to identify that some employees may return to work too soon, and may need more time to sufficiently recover from the loss.
  • Recognise that some employees will find comfort in getting back into a work routine. Don’t discourage these employees from returning to work.
  • Be watchful and do what you can to ensure that grieving employees are looking after themselves during the grieving process, by eating well and drinking enough water, as dehydration is common when people are in grief.
  • Briefly but frequently show concern and ask what you can do to help.
  • Ensure the employee has someone at work they can talk to about their loss if they wish to.
  • Treat the employee as normally as possible.
  • Understand that it is not unusual for someone to experience significant grief for a period of years.
  • It is normal to cry at any time when grieving and it is not usually necessary to try and stop it. If the crying interferes with customer service or the work environment, have a conversation with the employee about where there is a safe and private space they can use to cry.
  • Refer the employee to Employee Assistance Program and other supports if appropriate for counselling or other services.

But how do you give the support you want to give whilst still maintaining an equitable workplace environment?

The most common physical responses to grief are low energy, muscle aches and pains and generalised tension. This may result in employees being unable to cope with work tasks. This can be even more apparent for those who are also experiencing mental health issues. There are approaches that you can use that may help employees remain productive as they go through the natural process of grief from loss.

  • Offer specific, concrete help such as information on bereavement leave and benefit entitlements.
  • If possible, be flexible about time off, especially during the first year of bereavement, keeping in mind that some employees may need more time off than others.
  • Reduce or eliminate pressure by prioritising a grieving employee’s responsibilities and with their input, when possible, reducing their workload for a time.
  • Avoid assigning new tasks or additional responsibilities when the employee is still struggling with grief.

This is a subject that doesn’t get as much profile as perhaps it should. The prevalence of EAPs has provided a go-to source of counselling for sure and that’s great, but it isn’t day to day and that’s often where the employee needs help.

Asking R U OK? is a good starting point.