How can employers support bereaved staff?

23 Jul 2020 By Maggie Baska

Following a call for the extension of paid bereavement leave, People Management explores how people professionals can help employees who experience a loss

Losing someone important can be emotionally devastating – and it has a wide impact on the bereaved individual’s life, especially when they are at work. Earlier this week, the CIPD and campaigner Lucy Herd called for employees to be given the legal right to paid bereavement leave if a close family member dies.

In an open letter to the government, the CIPD and Herd asked for Jack’s Law, which brought parental bereavement leave to the UK earlier in 2020, to be extended and to create a new legal right to two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for all employees experiencing the loss of any close family member, including a parent, child, partner or sibling, whether by blood, adoption or marriage.

But with no current legal right to a general bereavement leave, how can employers support those coping with loss in the workplace? And how can businesses cultivate an environment where people feel supported during such a tumultuous time? People Management asked the experts how HR can help lead such change in the workplace. 

What are the first steps to take if an employee has lost someone close to them?

As soon as you are aware an employee has been bereaved, it is important to acknowledge the bereavement. Claire McCartney, senior resourcing and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, says this acknowledgement is important even if the individual may not want to talk about the situation in detail. Such steps will help employers learn about the individual’s loss, their situation and how the person wants to go forward. “Ask the employee how they would like to stay in contact and the best way to maintain regular, but non-intrusive, contact with them while they are away from work,” McCartney says. 

She also says employers should understand and accommodate any religious and cultural bereavement practices or special arrangements the individual may need. “Different cultures respond to death in significantly different ways,” McCartney explains. “Line managers should check whether the employee’s religion or culture requires them to observe any particular practices or make special arrangements.”

It’s important for employers to build flexible responses to bereavement, McCartney says. “Each person will experience bereavement in different ways and will need different responses and support from their organisation.” 

What rights does an employee have if they have experienced a Covid-19 related bereavement?

Currently, there is no general legal right in the UK to take time off to grieve when a loved one dies. From April 2020, employees who are parents of a child under the age of 18 who dies are entitled to take two weeks’ paid parental bereavement leave under Jack’s Law. This leave will only be paid where the employee meets certain qualifying criteria, which include having at least 26 weeks' service at the time the child dies and a minimum weekly earnings level.  

Andrew Willis, head of legal at HR-inform, says this means that where someone dies because of coronavirus, only those who fall within the scope of parental bereavement leave will have the legal right to time off. “All other employees will have to check their contract of employment for any leave their employer has chosen to provide, and this can differ from business to business,” Willis explains. 

While legal rights to paid bereavement leave are restricted, Willis says all employees have the right to take unpaid time off for dependants in an emergency, which would include the death of someone who falls within the definition of ‘dependant’ – such as a spouse, parent or sibling – but this is usually limited to a couple of days and so will not cover time off to grieve.

If a business can’t afford to give time off for a bereavement, what other support can it offer?

If businesses do not offer time off, even as unpaid leave, Willis says they may find that staff sign themselves off as sick, which results in an absence that would need to be covered in any case. Agreeing to short-notice annual leave is also an option where additional leave cannot be offered. 

“Where the employee remains in work, you could consider a temporary adjustment to their duties or working hours to lighten the load or a period of home working,” Willis says. “A listening ear and sympathy can also go a long way; the employee may welcome a card and flowers and the offer of a chat.”

As more firms are investing in mental health and wellbeing benefits for staff, Willis says employers should consider buying access to a telephone counselling service that staff could use free of charge. “An employee who has recently suffered a bereavement may find it helps to talk through their experience with a trained professional,” he says. 

How much information should employers disclose to the bereaved employee’s colleagues?

Where an employee’s private affairs are concerned, employers should be careful not to divulge any information to colleagues without the individual’s authorisation to do so, Willis advises. He says some people in the workplace might be close with the person and may know in any case, but it’s important to check with the bereaved person about which members of staff can be told and how much information can be shared.

“For this reason, it is advisable to check with the employee how much information they want their colleagues to know,” Willis says. “There are some who will already know but, where other colleagues are required to provide support, they don't have to know the reason.”

What training should line managers have to help them support a bereaved colleague?

McCartney highlights the importance of line managers being knowledgeable on any workplace policy or guidance associated with bereavement. She says organisations could consider holding workplace training sessions for managers and colleagues on how to support bereaved employees, which could also raise awareness and empathy within the business.

“Such sessions should highlight the support available in the organisation and could also cover how to support the wellbeing of HR, people managers and employees if they have been affected, by association, by supporting someone with a bereavement or several bereavements,” McCartney explains. Sessions could also cover helpful language and behaviour tips when supporting a bereaved colleague or team member, as this is often something that people worry about getting wrong.

How can employers support a bereaved colleague if they aren't comfortable disclosing their loss?

McCartney says it’s hard for employers to act if they don’t know that someone has been bereaved. So, she says, it is important to create an open, trusting culture where people will feel comfortable disclosing their bereavement because they know the organisation will respond empathetically and supportively. 

“It’s helpful to regularly promote any wellbeing services that you offer like occupational health and employee assistance programmes that bereaved employees could draw support from and to offer a range of flexible working options that could also be helpful to bereaved employees and employees more widely,” McCartney says.

How can organisations create a culture in which staff feel open to talking about bereavement? 

Beyond regular training around supporting bereaved colleagues, McCartney says businesses should aim to create an open culture of support so staff feel more comfortable raising any issues and asking for help. She says it’s also important for employers to understand and acknowledge the range of feelings people may feel after a loss as well as the impact that Covid-19 has had on grief and trauma. 

To this end, she emphasises the need for compassion and support across the organisation, which can help employers start to cultivate an open, supportive environment where people feel they can talk about bereavement.

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