How to support bereaved employees returning to the workplace

As lockdown eases, employers should bear in mind that workers who’ve suffered the loss of a friend or family member might be feeling apprehensive about going back to the office, says Jean Watkins

Being isolated from our colleagues and peers over the last six months has been challenging. The daily interaction of the workplace has been replaced by virtual catch ups; after work drinks have morphed into meeting your significant other by the kettle for the fourth time that day. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of workers across the country have had this difficult time amplified even further through the loss of a loved one to Covid-19. 

As restrictions on working environments are eased, employees who’ve suffered a bereavement in isolation might be feeling apprehensive about a return to the office or site. Grief is a complex mistress; it shows itself in many forms and can often be delayed in its impact. But for those who’ve lost a loved one during lockdown, there will be a certain feeling of detachment that the rest of us will struggle to empathise with. Managers have to be prepared to deliver a new level of support.

In times of difficulty, such as when grieving, we rely on our networks – family, friends, colleagues – to support us and provide comfort. We preoccupy ourselves with activity that takes our mind elsewhere. The cruelty of Covid-19 is that those who are dealing with death – whether as a result of the virus or another circumstance – will have been forced to face their feelings alone, within their own four walls. Online platforms like Zoom or Teams might provide us with certain levels of connectivity, but lockdown will have made grief a very disconnected experience. 

This will have major side effects on the mental health of those affected. When there’s nowhere to escape to – as was the case with lockdown – the only place to go is further into your own head. Here, dark thoughts can snowball and if you’re not provided the outlet to share them – such as with the ones your love – they can manifest further. Added to the general anxiety Covid-19 has impacted upon us all, this is a more difficult time than ever before to be suffering a loss. 

Impacted individuals will be wondering how their organisation is going to support them during this time. Will management understand this very unique type of grief? Will provisions be made for the enduring impact it will have on their physical and mental health? What kind of ongoing support will be offered to ensure they equally receive the help they need, and still be enabled to contribute to the running of the business?

From a management perspective, it’s more important than ever to add a bereavement offering to your employee benefits package. From counselling to probate support, arming your team with an easily accessible, personal service which helps them through the most difficult time of their life reassures them that you put their needs ahead of anything else. And this should be across the board – from large organisations that might see several people dealing with a bereavement at any one time, to smaller businesses that will be impacted by a sudden loss of resource. 

Covid-19 has reinforced that terrible things can happen at any time. As such, employees benefit from pragmatic employers who provide services such as will writing and estate planning; the things we never want to have to rely on, but need in place, should the worst happen. Covid-19, like many other illnesses, isn’t going to go away; everyone needs to prepare in case they should be impacted in the future.

In many cases of bereavement, people don’t know where to turn for the emotional and practical support required to navigate such a challenging time. Being an employer that actively provides services that meet this need will remove a huge hurdle and provide a level of comfort that – at a time when we feel very much apart – makes a person feel truly supported.

Jean Watkins is director of the National Bereavement Service