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Employee Bereavement Support: Why It’s Never Just About ‘Taking Time Off’

When you imagine somebody who has recently been bereaved, what kind of person would you picture?

Perhaps you thought of a weeping widow clad in black, or a child losing a beloved grandparent.  Almost certainly, the person you imagined was suffering the loss of a loved one.

Bereavement is an intense experience that strikes us all in many and varied ways, sometimes when we least expect it. 

However, although bereavement is a response to a personal loss, such loss isn’t always due to the death of someone close.  Loss can also refer to divorce, miscarriage, or even redundancy, as well as the death of someone not usually thought of as ‘close’, such as a work colleague.

How does bereavement affect organisations?

A recent report, ‘Bereavement in the Workplace’, organised by the support charity Sue Ryder, highlighted that without the right support, bereavement can have “longer term consequences for a person’s mental and physical health”.

Although the report acknowledges that employers can play a huge role in providing bereavement support, only 32% of the employees surveyed were even aware that their employer had a bereavement policy in place.  

Furthermore, just 30% of employees said they had been communicated with by the leadership of their organisation about grief or bereavement in the past year, even given its unprecedented and life-changing events.  This can fuel a general impression that talking about deeply personal subjects is taboo in the workplace, sadly leaving some employees to suffer in silence.

Bereavement can be expensive, too.  The report’s modelling shows that it costs the UK economy “nearly £23bn a year”, with most of the economic cost arising from presenteeism (lost productivity while at work) rather than absence.

What bereavement support should employers provide?

It’s extremely important to remember that bereavement and grief are not ‘one size fits all’ experiences. Therefore, employer support should be offered on as personal a basis as possible.

A clear, easy-to-access bereavement leave policy is a good start, so employees know that support will be available, without having to put themselves ‘out there’ to ask for it (and in turn, risk being told that none exists).

Open conversations should be encouraged with those who have suffered a bereavement – this may require specific training for line managers – so that they have the chance to share their feelings, and to organise how best to manage or cover their workload if needed. 

If the employee is reluctant to talk to someone at work, ensure you are able to point them in the direction of appropriate advice and resources so they can access the support that’s right for them.

What about bereavement leave?

The Sue Ryder report surmises that on average, “each person experiencing intense grief takes 22 days off in their first six months post bereavement”.

However, as we know, no two experiences of grief are the same, and some employees may need less, or more, time away from the workplace.  They may also have certain personal considerations to manage behind the scenes, such as finances and childcare.

Often, people don’t know themselves whether they are ready to return to work, or how they will feel when they are there.  Open conversations will help both employer and employee adjust to the circumstances, and plan the most appropriate return.  

This could involve reduced hours or duties, not to mention generous helpings of empathy, until the employee feels ready to face the world – and work – again.

We at Beyond EAP have put together a suite of free, in-depth bereavement resources, based on our extensive training and experience.  You can download these here.

We also provide compassionate, guided support for employees who have suffered a personal loss.  Our programmes are individually tailored to the employee, and may include EMDR trauma therapy where appropriate.

To begin a confidential discussion about bereavement support for your employees, you can contact us here.


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