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Grief Management playbook:

Part 1

 

Bereavement costs the UK economy £23bn a year

(source: Sue Ryder)

Poor bereavement management could be costing businesses even more in the long run, leading to low staff engagement, motivation and ultimately employee turnover. 

Bereavements happen all the time, yet organisations often struggle to handle them, with no or inadequate policies leading to awkward conversations and low morale. More businesses are now re-evaluating how they approach bereavement in the workplace. Their aim is to create a stronger culture of compassion that allows bereaved employees to work and feel better in the workplace at a very difficult time. They are recognising that a bereavement policy isn’t just about how many days off are given and that a rigid one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t cut it. 

This 3-part playbook helps you develop the best practice grief management programme your employees deserve. Cultivate a compassionate and flexible response in conjunction with the Grief Works app pack and exclusive content from Julia Samuel, best-selling author and grief psychotherapist. Part one looks at establishing your bereavement care policy, part two explains how to offer support during bereavement leave and part three guides you through the return to work phase.

What is grief and how does it affect people?

Grief is the personal feeling of loss and pain when somebody we love dies. The level of that grief will be dependent on the significance of the relationship, although it can also be complicated by having had a difficult relationship with the person who’s died.

Grief is uniquely personal and can be influenced by how we loved that person and what we miss about them, as well as who we are as an individual. The important thing for employers and colleagues to really understand is that grief isn’t something that you just get over. 

Grief is a painful, adaptive process, where you come to terms with the reality of the death of the person that you love and find a way of living and loving again and getting on with your life. 

Grief doesn’t just stay at home. The way organisations help bereaved employees through grief has a huge impact on how they feel both in the workplace and at home in the long run.

What should organisations do to support people?

According to research by the UK Commission on Bereavement in 2022, 40% of employers had no support in place for their workforce – leaving bereaved employees feeling undermined and angry that there was nothing on offer to help them through a very challenging time. The impact was considerable, negatively changing their relationship with their workplace forever. 

What do employees want from their employers? 

  • Employees want to feel that their organisation cares more than simply getting productive work out of them and that their managers and colleagues care about them and can support each other through difficult times. 
  • When employees are really supported they feel a great sense of loyalty, warmth and affection towards their organisation and team. 
  • Showing that the business cares often doesn’t take much or need to cost very much money, it’s more about human connection and acknowledgement of how the bereaved employees are feeling than about anything else.
  • It’s also helpful for both employees and leaders to recognise that people who go to work do better. Work is good for us: it can provide purpose, meaning and structure as well as connect us with people outside of the home which can be vital for our sense of well-being.

Recognising the important role an organisation plays when it comes to the long term for your employees, there are a number of things you should think about: a policy on bereavement care, a bereavement support system and the ways managers communicate with their team when a bereavement happens. By doing this, you’re affirming that your workplace is a place where people are supported through grief. You can also be confident that you are doing a good job as a boss or team leader because you’re giving something to your employees that a lot of other organisations aren’t. The first step for organisations is to develop a bereavement policy.

What is a Bereavement Care Policy?  

A bereavement care policy is an action plan that the organisation puts in place to support employees following a bereavement. It will include practical things such as how much time they can have off, what is in the system to support them, flexible working, time for the funeral and if there is any counselling within the organisation that you can put them in touch with. A great bereavement policy lets staff know what they can expect from the organisation at the outset, including anything above the basic legal requirements. 

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How to create a best practice Bereavement Care Policy

Grief is very individual. People react differently to bereavement and will go through different stages of grief at different times – something that organisations need to respect and understand when it comes to bereavement leave and long-term support. Your policy should allow for this so that managers are able to handle requests for extra time off with sensitivity.  Your policy should recognise that bereavement leave is to support employees in the immediate period following the death of a close relative, while the process of grief is personal to individuals, who may need support over a longer period of time as they adjust to their loss. So, a flexible approach, where you have a range of options available for staff, works best. Talk to the bereaved individual and agree on a personalised plan that works best for them, including paid time off and a phased return to work, which could include reduced hours or remote working. Show that this is something that you have thought about – your policy is just part of providing a supportive culture for your employees, offering them a range of resources and guidance from managers who can have thoughtful and sensitive conversations about how they are feeling and the support they need. 

What should your Bereavement Care Policy include?

It should include what the organisation does to provide advice and support when a bereavement happens, with guidance on bereavement, communications and ongoing support for the employee when they have returned to work. 

For best practice, it’s important to put your policy together in conjunction with staff representatives or union members who will have recommendations for the type of support their colleagues will need. 

The policy should also be regularly reviewed and updated, and made readily available to your employees both directly and through line management. Do consult a legal or employment professional to make sure it’s legally compliant for your particular organisation.

Bereavement (or compassionate) leave and pay

Bereavement leave is the time that an organisation grants to an employee to deal with their grief and practical arrangements when a loved one (usually a family member) dies. 

Checklist: 

  • The type of leave the organisation is offering (specifically bereavement or compassionate)
  • How much paid leave is provided and guidance around unpaid leave and annual leave 
  • How you define a dependant 
  • What happens when a non-dependant of the employee dies
  • When bereavement leave starts and ends
  • Statutory rights regarding leave following parental bereavement, stillbirth or miscarriage
  • Recognition that different cultures and religions have differing bereavement requirements
  • Compassionate leave for other workers who are not paid employees (eg, temporary or agency workers), if applicable

 

Communication when there is a bereavement

Make the reporting process as straightforward and stress-free as possible for your employee. 

  • Statutory rights regarding leave following parental bereavement, stillbirth or miscarriage
  • Recognition that different cultures and religions have differing bereavement requirements
  • Compassionate leave for other workers who are not paid employees (eg, temporary or agency workers), if applicable

 

Checklist

  • When the bereavement should be reported
  • Who it should be reported to (e.g. their line manager)
  • Who is able to report it
    • Guidance on what information the employee might like to share with their colleagues and if they want to be contacted by their colleagues or not
    • Identify how the employee would prefer to keep in touch with the organisation during leave

    Ongoing support and managing an employee’s return to work

    Checklist

    • How and when the organisation will manage the employee’s return to work (phased, part-time, part-time return, alternative duties)
    • Health and safety risk assessments ahead of the employee’s return to work, if applicable
    • The Grief Works app to help managers and colleagues know what to expect and what to say

    What to do when a member of staff dies

    Checklist

    • How you will inform other members of staff about the death 
    • How you will minimise distress for the deceased member of staff’s family, offering condolences if appropriate
    • How you will share details of the funeral or ceremony with staff if invited by the family 
    • Details of how the organisation will support employees
    • How you will finalise the deceased staff member’s affairs; their pay, pension and benefits, and the return of their personal belongings
    • How you will inform contacts at other organisations about the death as well as removing personal information from email lists and databases
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    Communication when there is a bereavement

    Make the reporting process as straightforward and stress-free as possible for your employee. 

    What more could you do for your bereaved employees?

    • You could set up Grief Support Groups in the workplace to support co-workers to process their grief and talk about mental health issues with people who understand. 
    • Consider whether your organisation is willing to cover any costs associated with bereavement counselling sessions for individuals.
    • Provide a list of trusted local businesses who provide services to give your employees practical help, for example, funeral providers, probate lawyers, house clearance, property management, accountant 
    • Financial assistance: whether your organisation is willing to offer a hardship loan to an employee who might be struggling to cover some of the unexpected costs or losing a significant proportion of their household income

    How to communicate your Bereavement Care Policy so that your people know what to expect at work 

    It’s all well and good showing that you have a great policy on paper, but not if you fail to communicate your provision and support. Help your employees navigate some of the most difficult moments they may face at work by clarifying what they can expect to happen if someone suffers a bereavement. Ensure your managers are able to share the policy with employees and are able to be flexible when it comes to individual circumstances. 

     

    Great communication is key. The better you communicate, the fewer awkward conversations, uncertainty and tricky decisions there will be for you and your colleagues to face when it comes to a bereavement.

    You can do this by:

    • Including the policy on your website
    • Including it in your employee handbook
    • Making it part of your employee onboarding
    • Holding specific sessions about grief with both managers and employees

    Why incorporate a Bereavement Care Policy into your HR provision?

    It’s important for both employees and their managers to have a clear understanding of what happens in the workplace when it comes to bereavement: 1 in 3 line managers (31%) say they would welcome help on how to support bereaved employees (Marie Curie). Often, employees are left to deal with grief by themselves with no or little guidance or support from their employer.

    A bereavement policy shows that an organisation cares about the wellbeing of its employees, that they recognise a bereaved employee needs to take time out to deal with challenging personal feelings and practical tasks related to the death. The way an employee is treated by their employer will have a big influence on how they handle their bereavement themselves, but also how they view their employer. 

    Managing bereavement is a tricky and very sensitive issue (often taboo), particularly because bereavement affects people in different ways. Some employees prefer to carry on with their daily working lives while others find work hard to cope with. This presents a challenge for employers who want to get the balance right. Either way, an organisation will need a policy that is flexible enough so individuals feel listened to and understood. 

    Employers can often underestimate the number of people affected by a bereavement. Workers who have suffered a bereavement may feel overwhelmed on all fronts and are often less engaged on their return to the office. Their performance suffers but so too can that of the whole team – who have more work to cover, while managers are trying to be empathetic as well as adhering to company policies while they have had no or little training in helping a bereaved employee or their team members.

    The upshot is that if you don’t understand the implications of a bereavement on both an individual and their colleagues, your organisation risks underperforming. If you’re not seen to be treating an individual fairly or your organisation is perceived to lack a coherent approach, it can lead to resentment and potentially cause morale and productivity issues in the longer term. By outlining a framework in your policy, you will give bereaved employees reassurance about their situation as well as equipping managers with confidence in speaking about what the individual is entitled to. 

    For more guidance on a Bereavement Policy for employers, please see here (page 210): https://bereavementcommission.org.uk/media/jaqex1t5/bereavement-is-everyone-s-business-full-report_1.pdf

    In part two of our playbook we’ll show you how to offer support during bereavement leave including:

    The types of grief that a manager is likely to see in their day job

    What do you do if you are told that someone in your team has been bereaved

    How a manager can start conversations with grieving employees and what they should say

    What the most common mistakes are and how to avoid them

    Why the Grief Works app is so helpful for HR and executives

    In part three of the playbook we’ll cover advice on the return to work after bereavement, including:

    The challenges employees face when they go back to work

    How to help employees back to work after bereavement leave

    The impact of grief on the whole team, when someone in the team is grieving

    Advice for managers who are grieving themselves while supporting grieving employees 

    How a manager can use the Grief Works app to help better support their team