When it comes to grief, compassion should be employers’ default approach

Managers and HR professionals need to recognise there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to support someone who has lost a loved one, says Phil Rimmer

Understanding the spectrum of grief

It would be virtually impossible to rate the intensity of the losses I’ve suffered over the years, and so would be quantifying the time I’d need to recover from the trauma. 

Every loss has been a unique experience, not only emotionally, but also pragmatically – of course there were analogies, but the conversations and lists of to-dos in the days following the event differed every single time. 

This is what I mean by saying: we simply cannot measure grief. We cannot assign it a mathematical value, nor pre-emptively determine whether the trauma caused by the passing of a parent will be more severe than that of a lifelong friend. 

Hand in hand with this variety of emotions come equally disparate coping mechanisms. One person may be utterly overwhelmed by a death, another may compartmentalise the event and turn to overtime as a means of distraction.

This is why, in the workplace, we need to acknowledge and appreciate the whole spectrum of grief. We need to provide support that accommodates the diverse range of emotions and reactions of grieving employees, rather than relying on a standardised ‘hierarchy’ of losses. 

A compassionate approach

Needless to say, dealing with bereavement is a challenge for any HR professional – get it right and you can help an employee recover from one of life’s most difficult periods, but get it wrong and you can cause resentment, anger, and long-term mental health issues. Compassion is the only instrument we have to capture the varying physical and emotional needs of our staff. 

Policies such as compassionate leave look at grief in a holistic sense, acknowledging all reactions to loss and providing employees with tailored, rather than generalised support. I cannot stress enough how critical compassionate leave has been in supporting men and women who find themselves in situations where there is no statutory cover. Despite recent legislative efforts to understand grief more holistically – Jack’s Law, for example, gives parents paid statutory bereavement leave – many areas of loss continue to be overlooked. 

While we should continue to campaign for more comprehensive legislation, proactively introducing flexible, sympathetic policies such as compassionate leave can go a long way to support grieving staff.

Assisting employees along the bereavement journey 

Of course, the obligation of employers to safeguard their workforce’s physical and mental wellbeing extends beyond formal compassionate leave. Grieving has no timeline and organisations are responsible for maintaining a level of sympathy in the weeks and months following the event to ensure that employees are able to return to a ‘normal’ level of functioning.

Just like there is no one way to grieve, there is no one way to support a grieving person. Empowering the employee to work from a remote location, providing free counselling, or signposting to support groups are just some of the ways employers and HR professionals can tangibly support their staff.

To build a system that works well for everyone, we have to be willing to be flexible and understand grief in its full complexity. Most importantly, we need to reassure our staff that while the bereavement journey may be long, grieving is a normal, human process. Especially in the workplace. Especially now. 

Phil Rimmer is head of HR Slater Heelis