Grief in the Workplace

Grief in the Workplace

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Winnie the Pooh

We are rarely trained to cope with grief in the workplace. Some businesses don’t usually recognise it, but it actually it can have a huge financial impact.  Employee productivity is so impacted by loss, and loss is everywhere right now.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions, the likelihood that someone within the workplace will be directly affected by the death of a loved one is sadly inevitable. It may also be the case that work colleagues have died during this period. The Office for National Statistics recently reported that, based on provisional data for January to December 2020, COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in England and Wales during the whole of 2020.

Bereavement support charities have written to the health secretary calling for more funding in the light of what they call “the terrible toll of 100,000 deaths”. The National Bereavement Alliance, representing a range of charities, said many families had been unable to be with loved ones as they died or to support one another.

So as employers what can we do? Should we have a workplace bereavement policy? Research from the CIPD found that just over half (54%) of employees said that they were aware of their employer having a policy or support in place for employees experiencing bereavement while many were not. There is some great guidance here page 16 if you want to create a bereavement policy at work.

Under, “ The Employment Standards Code,” employees are allowed to take up to three days as bereavement leave to deal with the death of a family member. Five to ten days’ paid leave is a common entitlement within the public sector, and the statutory parental bereavement leave is paid for 2 weeks. However we know that grief impacts on the emotional, physical, spiritual and psychological wellbeing of the person who is bereaved. At any time, one in 10 employees are likely to be affected (McGuinness, 2009)

It’s also true that the full emotional impact of the bereavement may not be felt for some time after a death.  Your ability as an employer to be flexible, and empathic are crucial. The way death and grief are dealt with in an organisation can have long-lasting implications on the relations between the employer, the workforce and the wider community.

It’s important that the way you communicate the news of the death to other employees is key and the method of communication should be empathic, personal and sensitive. Those that were closest to the individual may need more support than others. The employer should contact the family to offer condolences and agree a point of contact for any questions they may have in relation to the business. This maybe about pay or pension arrangements. It’s an opportunity to discuss with the individual’s family any practical suggestions made like a book of condolence and if an attendance at a funeral is acceptable. Perhaps during Covid this may be facilitated online.

You may decide different ways to commemorate the person who has died and of marking key dates; the family should be consulted about these, I have worked with organisations that all contribute to a memorial tree being planted, or naming a space in their honour. How an organisation deals with events such as this will usually define their culture and the attachment that employees generally have to the organisation.

There is some good advice in this ACAS guide around managing a bereaved person back to work.

We are also managing anticipatory grief right now. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain it usually centres around death. You may have experienced it when a loved one receives a diagnosis, or we fear losing someone close. We often experience a loss of feeling safe. We are experiencing this during the pandemic as often we can anticipate the loss of something before it happens. We just can’t normalise the fact that hundreds upon hundreds of people are dying every day and feeling what their families are going through.

The BACP have written an article which offers tips and advice to cope with hidden losses during lockdown here which I feel is helpful. You can access it here.

Personally, I feel it’s important to name your feelings as grief if that’s what you are feeling.  When you name it and acknowledge the feelings it moves through you. Emotions need motion they need space to breathe. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, that allows us to move forwards. I often feel we are worried that our feelings will almost gang up and overwhelm us. The truth is if we acknowledge them, they move through us rising and falling like the branches of a tree in the wind. Counselling can help with this process and also group support. Please let me know at New Leaf if we can help your business in this way.

Here are some good resources for further reading

10 Steps for managers in the event of a suicide or death

Sudden bereavement help Call 0800 2600 400

10am – 4pm Monday-Friday They help if someone you love has died in a way that you consider sudden or shocking.

Dying matters written Hospice UK so good advice on what to say to someone who is bereaved.

Supporting the death of a colleague written by the British Psychological Society “Coping with death and grief during the Covid-19 pandemic”

Business in the Community have created a toolkit offering practical advice and guidance. This includes how businesses can develop an empathetic, compassionate, and inclusive response that listens to bereaved people so they can be open, share how they feel and get the support they need.

It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

Megan O’Rourke

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