Masterclass: How to support bereaved employees

Grief can impact on productivity and working relationships, so it’s essential employers handle it appropriately, says Ken Akers

The pandemic has brought to light our own mortality and wellbeing. As a result, there is a heightened focus on bereavement and grief in the workplace, which can impact people very differently. The reaction can be immediate, or happen unexpectedly or after a long period of time, and can also be triggered in different ways at different times. 

This can lead to employees underperforming, being unable to focus or handle certain situations when they are under pressure, and it can put a strain on working relationships because people can become withdrawn. They may feel like they can’t carry on with their work or, alternatively, may want to carry on as a distraction from the loss itself, but it can also alter the way a person feels towards their work and colleagues. 

The variety of potential reactions to the loss of a loved one is what makes discussing the matter so worrying for both colleagues and managers, but there are things we can all do to make sure that, if someone does experience a bereavement, the response is a good one. At Marie Curie we have tailored our bereavement policies to start from a position of trust, in which we encourage employees to feel they can trust us, and vice versa. There are a number of ways to establish a trusting relationship, such as not avoiding difficult talking points, having open and honest conversations and listening to what is going on. If you know, or even suspect, someone has suffered a bereavement, you should sensitively ask the employee and offer condolences, but avoid making assumptions based on your own experiences or what you have read on grief.

First, managers should get that person’s permission to communicate what is going on to the wider team so others can be supportive and understanding of the situation, especially if there has been a drop in their productivity or in the quality of their work. 

We’ve changed the rigidness around time off for bereavement – grief is not always a linear or immediate reaction, and some people may defer their true grieving if they are caught up in arranging the funeral, while others may not grieve until an anniversary comes around. We agreed a bereavement policy that time could be taken up to 56 weeks after the death, and also allowed bereavement leave before the death of a loved one. Ultimately, when someone they love has died, employees want their employer to say: ‘Don’t worry, we will make sure you are supported.’

Ken Akers is head of HR at Marie Curie