We need to fill the uncomfortable silence around bereavement at work

18 Aug 2020 By Ken Akers

To be able to deal with a loss and process their grief, staff must feel comfortable talking about it with their employer, says Ken Akers

Part of creating a healthy environment around bereavement at work is making sure staff feel equipped and supported to talk. Talking about bereavement is something we tend to avoid at work, for obvious reasons – it can be emotional. We don’t know what to say, and we aren’t sure what the other person needs from us, so we avoid it rather than risk it.

But being unequipped for these conversations can have lasting implications. When a manager and employee are unable to talk things through honestly, assumptions may be made about what that employee might need. For example, many assume the bereaved person needs time off right now. In fact, people deal with these things in different ways. Sometimes the distraction of work is exactly what’s needed.

Equally, there might be an assumption about how a person is feeling. But grief can include a whole raft of emotions that can change suddenly from hour to hour,  including anger, denial and relief, which may have a knock-on effect at work. Building an emotional intelligence and understanding of what grief can be, as well as not making assumptions about that individual’s grief, is a vital part of supporting someone at work. And this requires strong communication.

Pushing the problem down the line

Where we fail to address bereavement properly at work, it’s not like the problems simply go away. The fact is, if people can’t work, then they won’t work. Without bereavement leave, employees’ grief will often be wrapped up and hidden in sickness absence – whether for stress, anxiety or depression. This means they’re then not in an open and honest situation with their employer. 

Where needs are discussed earlier and honesty and trust has been built, however, it might be possible to have a more flexible arrangement which allows them to keep working when they can, taking breaks and time off as needed.

More choices about how and when someone can work when they’re bereaved can really help and support people – obviously within a framework of what works for the organisation too. The shift to flexible working patterns we’ve seen in recent times makes this more possible than ever for many.

Trust begets trust

We all need to be able to take the time and space we need to grieve properly ourselves, and to be there for loved ones too, and we need to be able to return to work feeling that we’re ready. It’s important for people to feel they’re trusted and actively supported by their employer, but this is even more important when they are returning to work following bereavement.

A virtuous circle

At Marie Curie, flexibility and trust are the things driving our thinking around bereavement support, and the policies we use.

If you accept that trust is required, you can think about the problem differently. If you trust staff to take time off when appropriate and necessary, it frees you up to let people use it in the right way for them. And to build trust, you need to be able to talk.

Ken Akers is head of HR at Marie Curie

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