Clova McCallum, a counsellor for Sue Ryder’s Online Bereavement Counselling service, talks here of problems people who have been bereaved experience in their own workplace and gives practical advice for employers, colleagues and those who themselves have lost someone.
Raising awareness at work
It is important in workplaces to raise awareness of the long reaching effects of bereavement and the need for a holistic understanding in terms of mental health, physical wellbeing and practical issues.
As well as the perhaps more 'expected' emotional impacts such sadness, anger or shock, there can be more significant impacts on mental health including depression, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The specific circumstances around a loss or the resulting isolation, may lead to some of these longer term conditions. People may live with these conditions for a long time without them being diagnosed.
Physical wellbeing can also be compromised with many people experiencing fatigue and exhaustion. If a person has been caring for their loved one before they have died, they may have had a lot of stress put upon them beforehand. They may experience insomnia, which is common after experiencing a bereavement. This may have an impact on their ability to concentrate and work long hours.
“A common issue is an expectation they should 'get over it' fairly quickly and they fear judgement or even a risk to their jobs if they don't appear to be coping well”
Another potential health impact can be that sometimes people turn to less healthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol misuse to manage their emotions.
A person may experience big changes in practical terms, which includes financial, childcare or their housing situation. This means their schedules and needs may have radically changed because of the loss.
“Being able to talk to an employer and to have somewhere to share how they are feeling without judgement could help someone to feel more supported and to cope better”
Bereaved people have reported that a common issue - both in the workplace and elsewhere - is an expectation they should 'get over it' fairly quickly and they fear judgement or even a risk to their jobs if they don't appear to be coping well. This can be very isolating and drive some of the issues they are experiencing ‘underground', which makes it harder to ask for help.
Equally, being able to talk to an employer and be able to have somewhere to share what's really happening and how they are feeling without judgement or fear of professional reprisal could really help someone to feel more supported and to cope better.
How a line manager can best support an employee who loses someone
Many people find it difficult to talk to others about loss, however bereaved people often report that people avoiding or shutting down the subject because they are uncomfortable often makes them feel worse.
Line managers should spend some time, in a private space, with the bereaved person to find out about and listen to how they are feeling. It is a good idea to be led by the person as to what they'd like to happen. Some people may well prefer not to talk too much about their feelings at work but it should be up to the individual as to how they would like to be supported and the topic to be handled.
“How people grieve or talk about grief should also be approached from a transcultural perspective by an employer”
It is also good not to have too many assumptions. People may have had a complex or challenging relationship with the deceased, which may have left them with a lot to process. How people grieve or talk about grief should also be approached from a transcultural perspective by an employer.
It would be useful for line managers to have information in order to signpost the employee to a bereavement counselling service, like Sue Ryder's or their local Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services, or the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) service if the organisation has one.
It is also important to listen out for any risk and for the line manager to talk to a safeguarding colleague or refer to a policy if they feel that the person could be at risk of harming themselves in any way. There are guidelines about how to speak to someone about suicidal feelings available on many mental health websites such as MIND.
If you are grieving at work
For many people raising the subject of loss can be overwhelming. As a bereaved person you may not be comfortable talking about your loss in such a public and professional space such as at work.
It may be that talking to one particular person you work with, who you trust makes you feel more comfortable. This will help you get used to talking to someone at work and also means someone knows how you are doing.
“It may be that talking to one particular person you work with, who you trust makes you feel more comfortable”
Thinking about what you would like to say, who you would like to tell and how much you want to tell them before returning to work can be useful.
Sometimes people find it hard to know how to talk about loss and it can be awkward for people to know what to say. If you have been bereaved and know how you want people to be around you at work, giving others a steer may stop feelings of frustration and isolation. However, it is good to prepare yourself for the idea that everyone handles things differently, so some people may not give you the reaction that you would have chosen.
Sometimes thinking this through ahead of time can stop the feeling of being taken unaware.
As a colleague of someone who is going through a bereavement
When a colleague loses someone, it is nearly always best to say something to them. How you choose to do this, by email, phone or face to face will often be down to the relationship you have with your colleague and how you would feel most comfortable reaching out.
If you approach the subject, it can help to stop it becoming more and more difficult for either of you to address the loss as time passes. It may also help to reduce the bereaved person's sense of isolation and help them to talk about it a bit if they choose to.
“It may be hard to find the right words, but often bereaved people will just appreciate that you cared enough to say something”
It is possible that you do not get the reaction you expected, wanted or any response at all. However, the fact you have reached out will often have been very important to the person. It may be hard to find the right words, but often bereaved people will just appreciate that you cared enough to say something.
In some cases, your colleague may seem unchanged and be 'themselves', but everyone is different. They may still be in shock, feel very down, quieter or be more irritable than usual. All of these can be effects of grief, so having an awareness of that may help you to understand if things feel a little different than usual.
Add your voice
We believe that just like sick leave, maternity and paternity leave, bereavement leave should be a basic right at work and it deserves the same statutory protection.
Online Bereavement Counsellor
Clova is a qualified BACP registered counsellor, with several years' experience in supporting people with the difficult and complex feelings that can come from bereavement. She offers an accepting, warm and grounded space where people can explore how loss is affecting them emotionally and impacting on their life.