Grief Management playbook:
Now that you have put together your Bereavement Care Policy
The next thing to do is to set in place a bereavement support system. As an exec, you’ll want to establish a supportive culture for mental health and bereavement as well as support your managers to handle sensitive conversations and situations. Your managers are at the front line of your support system for bereaved employees, so you’ll need to consider how you help them best deal with the circumstances. How your managers communicate is key, so we’ve come up with some tips to help people who lead teams.
Every gesture of support from you and your managers, whether it is a conversation, message or practical help is a demonstration of your relationship with your employees, an opportunity to show that you care.
Understand what bereaved employes need most
People often understand it by Kübler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief” of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although we do often feel angry, or numb, grief is not a step by step process where, once you’ve been through all the stages, everything will be fine. Sometimes, people can feel multiple emotions at the same time, they can be ragingly furious and a bit numb, full of despair and incredibly sad. Understand that it’s normal for people to feel a mixture of emotions following a bereavement.
“Grief is a small word that describes a messy, chaotic and painful experience.”
As a leader, what can you do to help?
Create a supportive culture for mental health and bereavement
A thoughtful and sympathetic approach to mental health and bereavement will help bereaved employees cope better with their loss as well as strengthen your workplace culture and morale. As a leader, you can do this by:
- Developing an open culture of communication in your workplace so that employees feel confident to talk and to ask for support from managers.
- Emphasising the need for compassion and kindness across the organisation and include guidance for supporting bereaved colleagues.
- Encouraging more open conversations around death and grief. The best thing you can do is to acknowledge a person’s bereavement and offer support. Recognise that responses to grief are very individual, prompting a huge range of emotions and feelings. Some people will share their emotions and talk to colleagues while others may prefer to handle things by themselves.
- Considering holding training sessions on how to support a grieving employee, highlighting how to access the support offered within the organisation, including the Grief Works app.
- Ensuring that your company culture encourages people to take their leave to recover from their loss, including managers and leaders. Often people feel guilty about being out of the office and carry on working through their grief which can lead to burnout.
Support your managers to support their teams
As a leader, it’s vital that you give your managers the tools they need to lead their teams through the difficult times following bereavement in the workplace.
- On a practical level, ensure managers have a process set up to re-organise workflows.
- Provide guidance on how to confidently and thoughtfully communicate to the rest of the team why and how they can cover work for a colleague who is on leave.
- Set up some standard procedures for as many practicalities as possible when dealing with a bereavement in the workplace, for example sending a card or gift to the bereaved family, preparing email templates explaining a bereavement to send to staff, and best practice on communicating with the bereaved employee on leave.
- Managers will also benefit from receiving guidance on handling flexible working requests and managing flexible workers. Organisational training should give managers the confidence to support bereaved employees.
- Encourage managers to have regular wellbeing conversations with their teams.
What is a manager’s role in handling employee bereavement?
A manager’s main responsibility is to make sure that the team’s job is done successfully, from meeting deadlines, keeping within a budget and managing expectations to ensuring that the team feels supported and valued in the workplace. When a team member is bereaved, a conflict can often arise between the needs of the individual/s and that of the work itself. How a manager acts and reacts to a bereavement demonstrates their care, support and professionalism, thereby leading the rest of the organisation by example.
Managers should be kind and compassionate with their words, aware that they are responsible for looking after the wellbeing of both their team and the person on leave.
A leader of a team, when meeting a bereaved colleague face-to-face, can often be really thrown by their grief and emotions. Not only that, it’s helpful to know that some of those emotions are contagious. What will help is for leaders not to try to fix the individual’s grief or make it better, but to allow them to acknowledge their grief and let them name what is going on for them.
Most work is task-oriented and solution-focused, but grief is really not something that can be boxed up and ticked off.
What are the main types of grief that a manager is likely to encounter as part of their day job?
- There is the anticipated grief that happens when someone (themselves, or a close family member) is diagnosed with a life-limiting or terminal condition.
- The most common grief is for the older generations when parents and grandparents pass away.
- When there is a death out of time (young people) this can often be a sudden death, there is an added layer of complexity for managers to understand.
What do you say if you are told that someone in your team has been bereaved?
Execs, managers and colleagues all want to feel confident that they’re being helpful, kind and supportive but are often unsure about saying the “right thing” which in itself creates uncertainty and tension.
As a manager, or an exec leading a team, if you are told that someone in your team is grieving, the first thing to do is to email them and tell them that you are so sorry that you heard that their close relative (name) died. Then ask them if they would like to talk to you about it. Ask them how you can support them because you would like to help them. If they would like your support, suggest setting up a zoom or phone call, or invite them to come into your office to talk in person.
However, they may not want your support as work can be the place where they don’t want to grieve, or work may be the place they don’t want to go to because they’re grieving so much. Don’t take this personally, but be there if they change their mind. As a manager, you’ll need to work out with the individual what they think. Your role here is a tricky one as how they feel can change from day to day but the more you can build up trust by being open and having honest (often difficult) conversations, the more likely the person will want to come into work. It is also more likely they will want to be effective at work because they recognise that their internal process of grieving is being acknowledged by you and the organisation. On the other hand, if they feel their grieving process is being blocked or denied, then that feeling will grow and because they’re angry already, they’ll punish the work.
Seven practical tips for managers when handling a bereavement in the workplace
- Make sure your managers understand your organisation’s bereavement policy and how to implement it as quickly as possible when needed.
- Find out how much information the bereaved employee is willing to share with fellow employees and who you should let know about the bereavement. Maybe you can send out a short email on the bereaved employee’s behalf, explaining their sad news and their absence from work.
- Ask them about what they need from you and the organisation (e.g. time, privacy, practical help especially during the first few days which can be very busy).
- Make allowances for any cultural or religious grieving practices or rituals that may need to be observed.
- Choose one point of contact in the workplace to who other people can direct emails or calls about the bereaved person’s work during their absence.
- Help put the bereaved employee’s mind at rest by formulating a plan to cover their work during their leave.
- Ask them if they would like to stay in contact, and how, so you can remain in touch while they are on bereavement leave.
At all times show compassion and empathy through supportive conversations. Recognise that due to the mixed emotions they are experiencing, what your employee wants at the time of your conversation might well change; sometimes talking about the death is painful for the grieving employee but sometimes not talking about it is painful too.
What are the 3 most important things to do when speaking to a colleague who is grieving?
- Acknowledge the staff member’s loss.
- Ask the name of the person that’s died, and say that person’s name.
- Really listen. Listening is the part of communication most easily neglected. As their manager, if you listen 70% and talk 30% of the time, the person you’re working with will trust you, feel loyalty to you and feel supported by you. Don’t worry about saying something perfectly, just listen and be empathetic. Don’t feel you need to say a lot, or offer your advice or opinion, it’s more important to acknowledge the situation, listen and just be present. Be patient, encourage them to talk if they would like to but reassure them that silences are fine.
What not to say to colleagues when they are grieving
use the words ‘passed away’ and ‘lost’. It’s better to talk about the person who’s died. Although you may feel you’re being sensitive by using these terms, by avoiding saying ‘died’, you are in some way diminishing their experience that a person that they love has died. They haven’t got lost, they’ve died.
compare your own experiences of bereavement as each individual’s own ones will always be different. Avoid making assumptions and being judgmental – the bereaved employee will be best placed to know what support will be most beneficial for them.
What are the most common mistakes made when talking to a grieving colleague and how can you avoid them?
- The number one mistake you can make when it comes to bereavement is not talking about or even acknowledging it. People believe that if they say something, they’ll upset the bereaved person. They think “I don’t want to risk upsetting them so it’s better not to say anything. If they want something, they’ll tell me.” Don’t wait until you think of the ‘right thing to say.’ There is no right thing. The wrong thing is to say nothing.
- Be conscious of the tone of voice that you use. A patronising, head on one side “I’m so sorry for your loss” tone might indicate you want to drag their distress out of them, which can be really difficult for them.
- Find a way of being genuine, sensitive and compassionate whilst also respecting that something very difficult is happening to them. Feeling comfortable in their work environment and their role at work could be one of the biggest pillars that support them.
How can managers provide emotional support for employees who are grieving?
Supporting a team member through bereavement can be hard for a manager, so think about what the manager can do to look after their own wellbeing during this time.
- It is important that managers are able to establish clear boundaries with their team in terms of what their role does and does not encompass in terms of supporting a bereaved colleague. Of course, managers should also respect privacy if told personal information that should not be shared with others.
- Recognise that you are their manager and that they probably don’t want you to behave like a family member or therapist. The most helpful thing you can do is to recognise that they’re going through a very difficult, painful time. Be supportive, compassionate and listen. Be prepared to see tears and expect to hear the story told and retold by your bereaved colleague as these are both important parts of the healing process.
- Encourage them to look at the grief-specific support available to them, for example, a resource such as the Grief Works app.
Why your EAP may not be the answer for grieving employees
Utilisation rates are extremely low (5-10% industry average)
Access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is not always well communicated or straightforward for employees
Employees often experience delays in getting access to help
Management is often excluded from the EAP
EAP support is time-limited and advice is often provided by generalists who might try to “fix” people rather than letting them work through grief
What is the Grief Works app?
The Grief Works app provides unlimited ongoing emotional support to people who have been bereaved.
Based on the book ‘Grief Works’ by grief psychotherapist Julia Samuel MBE, the app includes a 28-session step-by-step course helping you to understand, navigate and express grief, over 30 meditation, sleep and breathing tools, help and 24/7 support.
When someone in the team is grieving, what is the impact of grief on a whole team?
The impact on a team is manifold.
Emotions are contagious, so team members may be picking up the feelings from the person that’s grieving, which could in turn trigger emotions from their own losses in life.
There can often be tension in the whole team because people don’t quite know what to say and feel like they’re tiptoeing around the situation.
Maybe the person that’s grieving isn’t able to do their job, so colleagues have to take on aspects of it and thereby their workloads get far heavier.
As well as looking after the wellbeing of your grieving employee, as a manager you will want to make sure that you have buy-in from your team covering their work and avoid resentment at taking on more responsibilities.
What can managers do to help their team when a team member is grieving?
Something managers can help to facilitate is talking openly.
- Firstly, simply acknowledge that a person is grieving.
- Talk about the things that are likely to get in the way of working as a team.
- What can be done to support the team whilst also supporting the person that’s grieving?
- One thing that can stop this working is that not talking about it will make the situation better. But talking about it means you’ll need to come up with a plan to deal with it, which is better for everyone involved.
Support your other team members to help the grieving employee.
Increase awareness among employees about teamwork, mutual support and your compassionate corporate culture.
Remember to thank your team members for supporting their grieving colleague by covering their work, so they feel you are all working towards a common goal.
Define and share a clear plan of action on how you aim to bridge the gaps and why. Set out exactly what the team is expected to do, with clear lines of responsibility and management.
Grief is the way that we, as humans, heal from loss and learn to move on. But with complex emotions, the blurred boundaries and pressures between home and work life, it’s hardly surprising that people need help to work through grief.
Organisations and managers should give bereaved employees time and space to grieve.
The next step is to offer them ongoing support in the workplace and beyond with the Grief Works app, which, with its 24/7 support, 28-day course, journal and over 30 practical tools, equates to both counselling and therapy.
Create the bereavement programme your employees deserve
Get complimentary 3 month access to the Grief Works app (worth £49.99)
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