It’s not always easy to know what to say when an employee loses someone they care about. But handling things in the right way can make the world of difference for a grieving employee
Few of us find death an easy subject to discuss, making bereavement in the workplace a hard subject to tackle. “As a society, we struggle to deal with loss and death,” says Steve Williams, head of equality at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas). Whilst death is universal and impacts upon all of our lives at some stage, it can be an intensely difficult subject for us to raise, particularly when addressing a recent bereavement. “This can sometimes lead to managers and supervisors not knowing the right thing to say, not knowing how to deal appropriately and fairly with employees that have suffered a loss,” he explains.
And whilst it’s tempting to avoid the subject or deny it is one for the workplace, the simple fact is that failing to treat an employee with compassion in these circumstance could be enough to drive them out the door. Williams makes reference to a piece of research conducted by Cruse Bereavement Care. “It estimated that, if treated badly by their employer at this time, somewhere between five and six out of ten employees would definitely look to move jobs,” he says. Clearly then, beyond it just being the decent thing to do, there is an obvious business case for treating an employee with compassion at a time of bereavement.
But it’s not alway immediately obvious what one should do when discovering an employee has lost someone they are close to. For this reason, Acas recently produced new guidelines in conjunction with Cruse Bereavement Care titled ‘Managing bereavement in the workplace’. It maintains that the place to start, before one even discusses anything relating to the business, is to show one’s sympathies. “Without patronising them, say ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ and offer your condolences,” Williams says. “The most important thing then is to talk to the bereaved employee about the fact that clearly you don’t expect them to work right now.”
Inevitably, at some stage the question of how much leave someone might require will need to be raised. Whilst this might not be appropriate during a first meeting – particularly given the individual may still be in shock – at some point it will be important to ascertain what the employee requires. The important thing to remember is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will suit everyone.
“It’s an intensely personal issue,” says Williams. He explains that when facing grief, beyond dealing with funeral arrangements, some people prefer to throw themselves into things, allowing them to take their mind off the situation. However, for others, the additional pressure of work can be the worst thing whilst they’re trying to process their grief. “You should have a clear policy but at the same time a good manager, a compassionate manager, tries to deal with that in a variable way depending on the needs of the individual,” he says.
An enterprise’s approach to bereavement needs to recognise that it is not dealing with an abstract, hypothetical situation; grief is incredibly hard to predict and rarely can one reduce it to a catch-all policy. “You can have a basic rule for how much time should I give people if somebody close to them dies,” says John Ritchie, CEO of Ellipse and former director of Winston’s Wish, the bereavement charity. “But then understand it’s a real situation; be prepared to ignore your rules and be prepared to be generous.” Circumstances can differ wildly; a young employee needing time off to attend their grandparent’s funeral is undoubtedly going to require a radically different approach. “You need to give them what they need,” he says. “Don’t be literal with your compassionate leave rules: be human.”
It’s easy to forget when handling the nuts and bolts of compassionate leave that there are other things that need to be established with the employee. “A key one is saying ‘how can we stay in touch?’” says Williams. Keeping in touch prevents an employee feeling like they have simply been cast adrift and ensures they know the business is concerned for their welfare. Another important consideration is how they want news of their loss and their absence to be handled. “Sometimes people like to keep it private; other times some people will say ‘I’d rather you tell my colleagues why I’m away,’” he explains.
Unfortunately grief doesn't simply go away overnight and the way an employer manages a bereaved employees return probably matters as much providing a sufficient amount of leave. First of all, it’s worth considering whether a change in working patterns would help them get back on their feet. “It might be the hours worked,” Williams says. “It could be the place of work. Maybe they could work more effectively in a different branch or working from home.” Talking to an employee before their return can help an enterprise find a solution that will ease them back into work without disrupting the grieving process.
Ritchie feels there is also a cultural issue at play here in making sure that the workplace is a supportive place for an individual that is grieving. “People need to know that they can talk about it,” he says. It’s a bit of a stereotype but the British stiff upper lip means we are notoriously bad about discussing emotive issues. However, it’s important that grieving employees feel they are able to discuss things with their employer or coworkers to prevent longer term problems like withdrawal and depression. “You have to signal by your own behaviour that it’s okay to talk about it,” he explains. “You need to just acknowledge it; it’s uncomfortable, it’s difficult but it is much better than if it’s never talked about.”
But it’s also okay to admit that you’re not going to have all of the answers; sometimes the best step a business can make is seeking some external guidance. Certain organisations, like Acas and Winston’s Wish, are in a position to provide advice to steer you through what is a difficult area. “You can ring their helpline, even just as an employer, and say ‘I’ve got this situation; be my expert friend,’” says Ritchie. “‘Tell me what’s likely to work, what I should do for the best.”
Ultimately a clear policy can work wonders when dealing with a bereaved employee. But it’s important to remember there are time when compassion extends beyond just providing compassionate leave.