“The more we normalise death, the healthier, happier and more helpful we can be to ourselves and others who are grieving”

11 Nov 2020

Felicity Ward, Counsellor for Sue Ryder’s Online Bereavement Counselling service, discusses the common issues she finds in the workplace for people who have been bereaved and provides advice for line managers, employees and their colleagues on creating a supportive and understanding environment for those who have lost someone.

Understanding and compassion

As a counsellor, I am often disappointed in the ways people tell me they are being treated by their employers regarding bereavement leave.

Without legal entitlements in place, those who are bereaved can often find themselves expected to return to work too soon after the death of someone significant.

Rather than it being ‘the norm’ I find myself feeling pleasantly surprised when I hear clients speak to me about feeling supported at work as this is sadly not the story I hear most often.

Despite death being the one thing all of us will experience at some point in our lives, we are terrible at talking about it.

Death is inconvenient, there is never a ‘good time’ for it to happen and this is something we all need to understand and show compassion for.

Nobody wants to be bereaved. It is always shocking to hear how a line manager feeds back to a bereaved individual the ways in which their grief is negatively impacting on their productivity in the workplace.

Despite death being the one thing all of us will experience at some point in our lives, we are terrible at talking about it. The more we talk about and normalise death, the healthier, happier and more helpful we can be to ourselves and others who are grieving.

Line managers supporting an employee through bereavement

If you are line managing someone who has experienced a bereavement, check to see if your workplace has a robust and comprehensive bereavement policy.  If it doesn’t, encourage the creation of one so that there can be clear guidance for line managers on how best to handle the situation, rather than guess work. This will also ensure that all employees are treated equally, although strong consideration should be given for individual circumstances.

In these situations, it’s best to be human.  Your employee will not be functioning at their best and shouldn’t be expected to. If you find it difficult to empathise with emotional pain then it can help to imagine their pain as being something physical that would temporarily prevent them from achieving their normal tasks. Be aware that grief can also manifest in physical symptoms, such as sickness and exhaustion. Consider what adjustments need to be and can be made and share these with your employee. 

Where possible, be guided by your employee.

Where possible, be guided by your employee – some may need to withdraw from or reduce their workload and flexible working, where possible, could also be considered. However, other employees may find comfort and support in being able to continue with and throw themselves into their work.

At the same time, some employees may start to push themselves too hard at work as they may feel they need to compensate for their grief.  If this is the case, their line manager should have a gentle and compassionate discussion with them about their wellbeing and that perhaps they need to slow down.

If you are an employee who is grieving at work

Grief can make it harder to think straight. Tasks that felt easy to you before you lost someone, may feel anything but easy to you when you are grieving, so it is important not to expect too much from yourself.

If you are grieving at work, sit down with someone you trust, who is supportive and list ways that you may need support at work.

If your grief is impacting on you in ways that impair your mental or physical health, please contact your GP who will be able to advise you on the best course of action.  They can also support you in knowing what bereavement support you may need and if you need to take time off work.

As a colleague if an employee loses someone

If you are a line manager and your employee has told you about their bereavement, check with them first who they would like you to share this with in the first instance.  You may find they only want to share the information with you, but others may prefer for their team to know.   It is important that you maintain their confidentiality and trust in you.

For those who are in the know, some acknowledgement in the form of a card signed with kind messages can mean a lot to the grieving colleague. If you are unsure about what to write in a sympathy card, check out our blog which has some ideas and suggested wording: Keep it real: what to write in a bereavement card.

If your colleague is grieving, the anticipation of returning to work and facing the “how are you” questions could feel overwhelming.

This a very challenging part of their grief as it can take a lot for them just to walk back into work. Try not to overwhelm the returning colleague, tell them that it’s good to see them back, make them feel welcomed and if you enquire about how they are perhaps wait for a quieter moment where it’s not so public and busy so they don’t feel embarrassed if they become upset.

Try to treat your colleague as normally as possible and if you see them becoming upset, try to gauge whether they need space or company – this is not always easy to do and asking them what they need and acting on their answer tends to be the best way.

A black woman sits on a double bed next to a younger black male whilst they both look thoughtfully at a laptop. The son leans his head against his mother's.

Online Bereavement Support

Access a range of support including free video counselling, an online community, plus advice and resources.

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