Support for bereaved employees is ‘insufficient’, study finds

Confusion over leave entitlements compounded by ‘insensitive’ managers and lack of flexible working options

Employers must do more to understand how newly bereaved workers experience the process of returning to work following the death of a loved one, according to a new report which paints a bleak picture of the support and provision available to employees.

The level of support for bereaved workers is “insufficient” and studies suggest that in many cases individuals receive almost no acknowledgment of their loss, said the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).

Its review, which saw experts from Canterbury Christ Church University examine research conducted into the topic since 1995, found that organisations needed better guidance to handle return to work rehabilitation and improve the way managers responded to their staff following a bereavement. 

Mary Ogungbeje, OSH research manager at IOSH, said employers suffered a ‘lack of guidance’ when supporting bereaved employees during their grief and through the return-to-work period. 

“Managers can struggle to bring the subject up and may avoid the topic out of fear of saying something insensitive,” said Ogungbeje.

“It is important managers understand how an employee is feeling after returning to work. Both an organisation and the individual employee can benefit from having good policies in place. Being able to use discretion – such as providing the option to work from home, flexible working hours, and reviewing workloads and deadlines – empowers managers to be able to best support the bereaved employee.”

The review found that only around a fifth of participants in one study believed their employer had allowed sufficient paid time away from work for grieving and, in some instances related to the death of a child, they were refused time to organise and attend funerals.

Flexible working practices would help smooth the transition and alleviate the pressure of a high-demand working environment when returning to work, the review said. 

Only one-third of organisations with between 150 and 5,000 employees offered their bereaved staff some form of flexible working options, while 84 per cent of workers in another study reported they were expected to resume full responsibilities on their return to work, IOSH said. Participants found the idea of returning to work “daunting” and their energy, confidence and creativity was “significantly reduced” in the aftermath of bereavement. 

Leanne Flux, PhD candidate in psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, said: “We found a lack of response specifically in long-term support, a lack of clarity around how much time is allowed off work for the bereaved, and a lack of clear HR guidance in the way forward.”

The review referred to short-term support as “good” but the longer-term unstructured approach of “whatever is needed” was particularly unhelpful. Participants believed employers should adopt a more proactive process rather than waiting for bereaved workers to ask for assistance. They suggested organisations name an individual responsible for offering informal bereavement support. 

One study surveyed 106 child welfare workers who had experienced personal loss and found just 23 per cent of organisations willingly changed bereaved workers’ schedules, while just 37 per cent reported that supervisors were willing to help with issues around work allocation. HR was frequently criticised for not offering guidance or for an absence of bereavement policies. 

There is no current statutory entitlement to paid bereavement leave in the UK, though workers are entitled to reasonable unpaid time off to deal with the logistics around a bereavement. Since the introduction of a new law in 2018, parents experiencing the death of a child are entitled to two weeks’ leave paid at the statutory rate. 

IOSH’s review found paid leave tended to be left to the discretion of line managers and this ambiguity caused confusion relating to employee entitlements. Half of line managers were found to have permission to grant additional compassionate leave beyond the level stated in the official policy. 

 “By understanding bereaved employees’ experiences of workplace support, we will not only create awareness and knowledge of what best practice support looks like to them, but may assist to develop individualised care and support for employees who may be experiencing mental distress in the workplace,” Flux added.