How can HR support bereaved workers?

21 Jan 2021 By Maggie Baska

Losing a loved one has sadly become a more common occurrence in recent months, and it can have a significant impact on employees’ wellbeing

Bereavement is a distressing but sadly common experience. Most of us, at some time in our life, will experience the death of someone we love. 

For many, these losses usually happen later in life. But unfortunately, the Covid pandemic has meant it’s become a far more common occurrence, and employees experiencing the death of a loved one often don’t receive the support they need.

Earlier this month, the national bereavement charity Sue Ryder, the CIPD, Hospice UK and a coalition of cross-party MPs and healthcare professionals called on the government to introduce a minimum of two weeks’ statutory paid bereavement leave for UK employees who have lost an immediate family member.

But as well as lobbying for more government support, it’s possible to help at an organisational level too. At this time of national crisis, how can HR support workers who are experiencing loss of a loved one?

Provide holistic support and take individual circumstances into account

Bereavement can have a significant impact on an employee’s mental health and wellbeing and employers should treat anyone experiencing a bereavement with compassion and support in the workplace, says Claire McCartney, senior resourcing and inclusion adviser at the CIPD. 

She said organisations should develop bereavement policies that offer long-term support and ensure line managers are equipped through appropriate training to support bereaved employees.

“Grief is not linear or predictable, and everyone will experience it differently, so employers must recognise individual circumstances and be as flexible as possible,” McCartney explains. “Appropriate time off will reduce the risk of employees being forced to return to work before they are ready, which will have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing, performance and productivity.”

This being said, Ken Akers, head of HR at Marie Curie, adds it’s important for managers and HR to recognise that sometimes “being away from work is the last thing that someone who’s bereaved wants.

“[Sometimes] they want to be at work, to be busy, to be distracted and that’s their personal choice,” he says. “But, they may also be busy but not performing as well as they normally do because they’ve got something on their mind… It’s about being sensitive to the individual and recognising it might be better for them still to be at work – but maybe not in the boardroom giving a presentation.” 

Keep support flexible 

While having a statutory right to time off is important, it’s also critical any bereavement policies can be used flexibly. Akers says some statutory provisions around parental or family leave are built around taking time off in blocks, however it can be more important for employees to be able to take leave as and when they need it, “because it’s really difficult on that day, whenever it happens, to go back into work”.

Marie Curie’s internal bereavement policies have the flexibility to allow for time off or additional time off – within an established framework – to recognise that individuals might be missing their loved ones on birthdays, holidays and other important days.

“We wanted to have a flexible approach in the organisation to suit individuals,” Akers says. “It can be easy to forget significant events for your team members so it’s important to remember and take that into account.”

Train managers appropriately 

CIPD research found that only just over half (54 per cent) of employees said they were aware of their employer having a policy or support in place for bereavement. McCartney says: “It is important that organisations are clear about the policies and support that is in place, otherwise they risk adding work-related stress to what is already a difficult situation.”

Guidance from the CIPD on how to manage and support someone who has been bereaved says managers need to understand their organisation’s bereavement policy or framework and the support available in terms of leave or access to an employee assistance programme or counselling services. 

It is also helpful to consider the impact of bereavement on the employee, their duties, and the context in which they are working as part of the employer’s legal duty to conduct a health and safety assessment. If the employee raises any concerns about their ability to safely conduct their duties following loss, HR should collaborate with managers to take steps to ensure the safety of the employee and colleagues.

Akers adds it can take time to build a trusting work relationship between workers and managers, but it is critical staff feel they can approach leaders to express their concerns around bereavement and loss. 

“It’s important to be observant about what’s going on, but it’s also important to listen to individuals and the network in the team,” Akers says. “It’s about really taking the time to check and see if someone is fine. It’s just about practising interpersonal skills.”

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