If you’re employed, there will come a point after your bereavement leave when you might need to start to think about returning to work. We know this might feel daunting, but we want you to know we’re here for you. On this page, you’ll find advice about managing your return to work, including information about how your employer can support you and how to plan your first day back.
Although your role might still be the same, life can feel very different after a bereavement. So many things can change, and your grief can take time to process and understand. It’s important to recognise that, and make sure you’re getting the support you need.
How to face going back to work after the death of someone close to you
Grief can be unpredictable, so it might be hard to know how you’ll feel about returning to work until that day arrives. While it can be a difficult process for some, others have found that it can help to:
- focus on something other than their grief
- find purpose in their life again
- get back into a routine
- sleep better at night
- feel connected to people.
You might also find that how you feel changes from one day to another, so try to take each day as it comes. Some days may feel harder than others, and that’s okay. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
How your employer can support you
Everyone’s experience of grief is different. That’s why it’s so important to be honest with your employer about how you’re feeling.
To help you have those conversations, we’ve outlined some of the approaches you might want to consider when thinking about your return to work. You may prefer one over another, or you might decide to talk to your employer about all the options available to you. Although the final decision about how you return to work lies with them, it can be helpful to have an idea about what your preference would be.
Some employers may have a bereavement policy in place. This usually outlines what employees who have been bereaved are entitled to, such as days off or changes to workload and shift patterns.
If you’re unsure if your employer has this kind of policy, asking about it before you start any conversations about your return to work can be helpful. This can give you time to read and understand it and ask any questions about what you are entitled to.
If your employer does not have a bereavement policy in place, or if you would like to see if another approach may work better for you, the information below may be useful.
Phased or gradual return to work
A phased or gradual return to work allows you to ease yourself back into your working routine. What this means in terms of your hours or workload will depend on your employer, but if they agree, the general approach should help you settle back into work over several weeks. For example, you might be able to work one or two days a week initially, before building up to your full-time schedule.
This can be particularly useful if you have new caring responsibilities after your bereavement, or if there are still practical issues to sort out. But it can also give you the time to understand how to start to manage your work responsibilities alongside your grief.
There’s no right or wrong way to return to work after a bereavement, so if things start to feel like they are moving too quickly, or too slowly, try to speak to your employer about how you’re feeling. It’s important that you feel able to have these conversations and talk about what support you need.
Your GP can also support you in deciding what you can manage, so you may want to talk to them too. If things are getting too much, they can provide you with a fit note (also known as a statement of fitness) where they can suggest changes to how you work until you are fully ready to return to your whole role.
“I went back at the beginning of January on a phased return, so I do mornings only. I found it very hard at first but it has done me so much good. I have to get up in the mornings and going back to the familiar routine was quite comforting in a strange way. I’m 5 months in and still find mornings difficult, but by the afternoon, things seem more manageable. You can always try going back to work and if you find you can’t manage, maybe you could take more time off. Take it at your own pace. There is no rule book and grief is different for everyone.”
- a member of our Online Bereavement Community
Another approach you might want to consider for your return to work is flexible working. This should be an option for you if you’ve been working for the same employer continuously for 26 weeks. It can involve:
- working from home
- working part-time or fewer hours
- working longer hours each day so you can take more time off (known as compressed hours)
- having a flexible start or finish time, or working your hours around your responsibilities.
This approach can give you time to understand how your work schedule aligns with your life now. It can be hard to know what’s best, especially when you’re still processing what’s happened and trying to understand the impact of your bereavement on your future. But that’s why it’s so important to be open with your employer about how things are going.
As with a phased or gradual return to work, your employer will have to agree to your flexible working plan. They don’t have to say yes, so you might want to go into the conversation with a couple of ideas about what might work best for you. Hopefully, you can then work together to agree on a plan that suits you both.
“The first day was the hardest and I cried all the way to work, but it got better. It gave me a reason to get up in the morning and a routine which helped.”
- a member of our Online Bereavement Community
Preparing for your first day back at work
Often, seeing colleagues on your first day back can be especially overwhelming. There may be lots of questions about how you are, or how you’ve been, and they can be difficult to answer. To help with this, you might want to try and space out catch-ups over several weeks. Or you might want to schedule them close together to get through them quickly.
Your mind will likely be preoccupied, so try not to worry if you forget simple things like your building pass or the door key code. These things can happen, and it’s not anyone’s fault.
Depending on your workplace, it may be possible to speak to your manager about having ‘time outs’ if you suddenly feel overwhelmed. This might mean that you discuss beforehand where you can safely go to have a few quiet minutes if you need to in the middle of the working day. This won’t be possible in every type of work, but it may be for some.
If you know your plan for the day, you might also find it helpful to think about whether there are breaks or moments when you can schedule some time alone. This could mean a quick lunchtime walk to get some fresh air, or perhaps an afternoon snack in your car. The breaks don’t have to be long, but keeping some time aside for yourself can be useful if things start to feel too busy or tiring.
If you’re getting upset or finding things harder than you thought, try to be honest with someone you trust about how you’re feeling. This could be a colleague, your manager, or your HR team.
It can also help to speak to this person before you start back at work, so you can talk to them about what might make things easier for you on the day. For example, you might want them to let your colleagues know what has happened, so you don’t have to talk about it in too much detail.
Sometimes, arranging to meet with that person outside your work and walking in together can also help to make that first day back less daunting.
What to expect when you return to work after a bereavement
Although you’re returning to a familiar environment when you go back to work, you’re also going to be dealing with new emotions that can affect how you feel from day to day. To help you prepare for this, we’re sharing some advice about what to expect over the first few days or weeks back in your job.
Everyone’s experience will be different, but it can be useful to be aware of these situations ahead of time. And if things do feel difficult, try not to be too hard on yourself. Grief can be hard work, and that’s not your fault.
“Work is the one place which is ‘normal’ and I’m grateful to have it. Our grief is always there, and of course, we go back to it. In fact, it never leaves us really, always in the background even when at work, but that’s OK.”
- a member of our Online Bereavement Community
Reduced concentration and increased tiredness
When you’re grieving, your mind can often feel foggy or distracted. This can make it difficult for you to focus, and in turn, it can become harder to complete tasks.
If you can feel this starting to affect your work, try to be honest with your manager. You could suggest that a team member double-checks what you’re working on initially, or you might want to schedule regular breaks to help you keep focus.
This may mean working at a slower pace than you’re used to, but you might find that it helps to take some of the pressure off you while you settle back into your role.
Grief can be exhausting, and starting back in the workplace may be more tiring than you expect. This is normal, so don’t be surprised if each day feels harder and longer than it did before. Think about some of the approaches mentioned above to adapt your working around you, and try to let your manager know if things feel difficult. It will gradually get easier as you get used to being back in your role and managing your routines around that.
A range of reactions from colleagues
Research from our Grief Kind campaign shows that almost half of the general public isn’t sure what to say when someone tells them a close relative or friend has died.
Although those close to you might feel able to talk to you about your bereavement, others in your organisation might struggle. This can sometimes result in people asking lots of questions, or avoiding asking you anything at all. While this can feel awkward or uncomfortable, try to remember that most people mean well.
If something does upset you, be open about this with your colleagues. Grief is such an individual experience, so talking about how you’re feeling can help those around you to support you in the best way possible.
You might also find it helpful to share our resources with your employer. From advice about how to support staff through a bereavement, to our Grief Kind campaign which aims to give people the confidence to support someone they know when they’re grieving, we’ve got lots of advice that your workplace might find useful.
Good and bad days
Some days will feel harder than others when you’re grieving. Sometimes you’ll know these days are coming, such as the birthday of the person you’re missing, or the anniversary of their death. But at other times, they might take you by surprise.
It might be an idea to use your annual leave during these moments, so you can take some time off and spend the day in a way that feels right for you and your grief. But this isn’t always possible for everyone.
If you find that you’re having to manage these difficult days alongside your work responsibilities, try to let your manager know. If you know a date or occasion is coming up, you could speak to them about it so they’re aware that you might need extra support. Or, if things suddenly start to get too much, try to get in contact with them as soon as possible. They may then be able to adjust your schedule for the day or take you off some projects if needed.
Although you might find it hard to accept taking a step back from your responsibilities, remember that this isn’t permanent. Your bereavement and its impact on your life will take time to process and understand, but, over time, you will learn to live and grow around your grief.
Find others who understand
Our Online Bereavement Community is a safe space for people who are grieving to come together and share their experiences.