How to support employees through grief and loss

As the war in Ukraine continues to generate heartbreaking scenes, it’s important to support employees both directly and indirectly affected, says Louise Abbs

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The tens of thousands of Ukrainians working in the UK will be feeling mounting helplessness and despair at the mounting death toll and images of entire cities being destroyed, as will many of those watching the news who have been recently bereaved themselves.
Critical to supporting those affected, without being intrusive, is understanding complex grief, creating a safe environment and reviewing your bereavement policies.

Understand complex grief

Losing a loved one is one of the most devastating experiences we can go through at the best of times. If a death is sudden, unexpected, unnecessary, or you didn’t get to say goodbye, it can give rise to complex grief. As can losing your home or having to flee your country.
Complex grief is when someone struggles to pass through the normal stages of grief, which include shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger that this has happened, depression, loneliness and reflection. The individual can become understandably stuck with powerful feelings of guilt or hold onto anger that something that shouldn’t have happened has happened.
Left unsupported, these unresolved feelings can cause the person to become depressed and withdrawn, angry and aggressive or even turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as using alcohol or drugs to numb their pain. Instead of letting things get to that stage, specialist bereavement, and even trauma counselling, can help employees to process their feelings and come to terms with what is happening, as difficult as that may be.

Create a safe environment

Different people grieve in different ways. Some of those individuals affected will want to continue to focus on work and not talk about it to distract themselves. Others will want time to reflect and to voice their experiences or talk about the people and places they’ve lost.
It’s impossible to know what someone needs, without asking them, so managers should be prepared to ask people how they are and what they can do to support them. Many managers might feel awkward or reluctant doing this, especially if their own response to grief and loss is to distract themselves and carry on as normal around others.
However, people who attempt to carry on as normal can suddenly experience a wave of grief and feel overwhelmed when they least expect it. Meaning it can be very helpful to know their manager is there to support them and that they can step out of a meeting or away from dealing with a customer, for a bit, if something triggers their grief.
This isn’t about encouraging managers to counsel the employee. It is about creating a safe environment so employees know there will be someone there to ask how they are, listen with empathy and connect them with any support services in place, such as a counsellor at the end of an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), if they need additional support.

Review bereavement policies

It’s important not to be too prescriptive when supporting employees affected by complex bereavement. Someone who sees their uncle as a surrogate father might be far more devastated by their death, than the death of a sibling they have become estranged from. While someone touched by a traumatic death, such as the death of a friend’s child, might be deeply distressed by this, even if not directly related.
Witnessing daily images of civilian deaths on the news will also be affecting other employees. Such as those already experiencing complex bereavement after unexpectedly losing a loved one, at a time when they might not even have been allowed to say goodbye in person due to the pandemic.
Consider who might be affected, due to recent bereavement or links to Ukraine, and monitor how well employees are coping on a case-by-case basis. Allow people who are struggling to carry out different duties for a time or take some bereavement leave, if they think this will help them. Plus, think through in advance how you will communicate with colleagues if someone becomes bereaved, how you will show compassion to their family and what support services you want them to be able to access.
Louise Abbs is managing director of PAM Wellbeing