How employers can tackle grief in the post-Covid 19 workplace
Since March, news of thousands of deaths has filled our living room. Instead of being swept under the carpet, death has emerged from the shadows to dominate social media and general conversation.
With over 46,000 people lost to coronavirus at the time of writing1, many of us are likely to have lost friends or family, or know someone who has. So how can employers help manage grief and bereavement in the post-Covid workplace?
It‘s estimated that 1-in-10 employees is affected by bereavement at any one time2. With 65,000 more deaths recorded from April to June compared to the five-year average3, it’s likely that more employees than usual will be coping with grief. Broaching the subject of death can be difficult for both employer and employee, but the right support at work can be a great help to someone dealing with the loss of a loved one.
In July, campaigner Lucy Herd called for the government to make it a legal right to support employees who have experienced the death of a close family member – an extension of Jack’s Law. Introduced in April 2020, this entitles working parents to two weeks’ bereavement leave following the death of a child under the age of 184. However, Jack’s Law doesn’t cover the death of other dependents, such as parents, a partner or someone else who relied on them. In these cases, employees are only entitled to a “reasonable period of paid leave” – one that’s down to the employer’s discretion with no legal right for this time off to be paid5.
The timing shows bereavement and grief in the workplace has become even more important over the last few months – something that employers need to recognise.
If not addressed, grief can severely impact both the physical and mental health of employees, seriously affecting productivity, and morale across the whole organisation. How employers support people who have lost loved ones reveals their level of understanding and empathy, and demonstrates their true commitment and attitude towards employee wellbeing.
It is not just those who have lost family or friends who may be experiencing grief. With so many people separated from friends and family for so long, worries about anyone who is frail or has underlying health conditions have been magnified. This fear – anticipating what might be to come – may be causing a rise in anticipatory grief, where people experience all the same feelings following a death even before it happens. If this goes on too long, it can wear people down both physically and emotionally, resulting in issues concentrating on their work, communicating with others, meeting deadlines, and generally hampering performance.
While businesses are likely to be aware of the need to support employees’ mental health during this difficult time, anticipated grief has flown under the radar. Some employees may be suffering as a result, so employers should acknowledge the condition and ensure all employees know how to access bereavement support.
Each bereavement is different. There are no hard and fast rules for how someone will react, what they will feel or how they will cope. There’s also no time limit on how long they will be affected by it. This can make it difficult for employers to know how to approach the subject so having a bereavement policy is vital – especially now.
A policy provides a framework for managers, giving them the support and guidance crucial for dealing with this sensitive topic, and ensures that everyone is treated equally. It also shows employees that bereavement is something the company recognises and take seriously, and an issue that can be broached and discussed in the workplace.
When dealing with bereavement and grief, employers need to have the 3 Cs in mind – Communication, Compassion and Connection. These should form the basis of any policy and managers should be encouraged to think about all three if an employee is affected by a death.
It can be incredibly difficult to know what to say to some who has just lost someone they love. There is no denying it can be hard to find the right words. However, saying nothing is far worse than choosing the wrong ones. Just acknowledging the loss and offering condolences is vital to show employees that they are not alone, and that support is there when they need it. This is especially important now, with many employees working remotely, far away from colleagues and the usual support network offered by the workplace.
This communication needs to be ongoing, not just in the first few days after an initial bereavement. Talking to an employee to see how much time they need off, what reasonable adjustments can be made to help them stay productive and engaged with their work, and what support would be suitable is essential. There is no timeline for grief and an employee needs to know they can talk about the issue at any time.
No one can fail to have been touched by the stories of bereavement filling the media. So many people have lost loved ones, often in harrowing circumstances. It’s also likely that they’ve been unable to say a proper goodbye or have the funeral they’d want due to social distancing rules. The most important asset to any organisation is its employees, so compassion, understanding and empathy must be enshrined in any bereavement policy.
Touch can make makes us feel happier, satisfied and trusting of others. A hug or just a pat on the arm is how we offer solace and comfort, especially if we find it difficult to find the right words. Social distancing means this is no longer possible. Instead, employers should consider how best to keep connected when someone is going through a bereavement.
Organisations may have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which can provide bereavement support. There are also charities, such as Cruse Bereavement Care and Child Bereavement UK that can offer expert advice and guidance, particularly aimed at employers and employees. Ensuring employees can connect with appropriate support can help them manage their grief alongside the pressures of work.
While Covid-19 has thrown up many challenges to employers, it also provides an opportunity to take stock, and reassess attitudes and approaches. Death, bereavement, and grief have been issues that have often been sidelined and not effectively addressed, leaving employees to live with their grief in silence. Now’s the time to change that mindset and encourage a much more vocal, visible, and human response to something that is a natural and inevitable part of life.
For more information on the 3 Cs and dealing with bereavement in the workplace, see our bereavement guide for employers and employees.