Grief in the workplace
The 2nd – 8th December 2022 is National Grief Awareness Week. The purpose of the campaign is to normalise grief, better equip those who are currently experiencing grief and to raise awareness for those who are yet to experience loss.
Grief is a universal emotion which does not discriminate. It can be experienced by the administrative assistant as well as the CEO of a business and can affect those of all ages, religions and cultures.
Despite grief being a universal experience, acknowledging grief in the workplace is often seen as a taboo and the idea of actively talking about and addressing grief is often thought of as something to stay clear from. Many people are wary of saying the “right” thing or are unsure how they should act around a person who has recently experienced loss. Whilst these reservations are understandable, the result of this approach is to meet the employee experiencing grief with silence, rather than with support.
So, how can employers support employees who are experiencing grief?
The starting point is for employers to refrain from viewing grief as a linear 5-step process to be completed by the employee alone, but rather as a fluctuating emotion that ebbs and flows unpredictably. Everyone responds to grief differently and whilst some employees may prefer to process their grief in private, others may prefer for their grief to be acknowledged. As such, what support looks like may vary significantly from employee to employee. Managers should not shy away from asking employees direct questions – are you comfortable discussing your loss in the workplace, what do you want me to say to the team?
Grief is personal and therefore how employers communicate with employees is key. Employers should ensure line managers have adequate training on the different forms of support the organisation can offer, and crucially how to have sensitive, empathetic conversations.
Upon becoming aware that an employee has suffered loss, employers should contact the employee to acknowledge their loss and offer condolences. Often, employers are cautious about contacting an employee during this time as they do not want to appear insensitive. Whilst contact should not be excessive, employers should seek to establish with the employee how they wish to be contacted, i.e., by phone or email, and how the employee wishes for them to share the news with the employee’s colleagues, if at all. By establishing this at the outset, the employer can ensure they provide adequate support on the employee’s terms.
What are the legal rights?
There is no legal right to paid time off for bereavement, unless someone is eligible for parental bereavement leave when a child dies. This may seem surprising, as most individuals will need time off (sometimes considerable time off) especially following the loss of a member of their immediate family. In reality of course, most Employers will exercise their discretion for some paid compassionate leave.
Employers should consult their policies, specifically in regard to compassionate leave and parental bereavement leave. If employees have exhausted any entitlement to paid leave, it is good practice for employers to highlight to the employee the use of annual leave and unpaid leave to cover any additional time off needed.
Practically, employers can also offer support by:
- Asking the employee what support they need;
- Re-allocating work to other members of the employee’s team;
- Responding sensitively to an employee’s request for time off; and
- Signposting employees to any employee assistance programme or workplace counselling on offer.
When an employee returns to work after a period of bereavement leave, employers should ensure they hold a return-to-work meeting with the employee to check how they are, outline the support services on offer and ask whether any adjustments may be helpful, for example, a temporary change to duties or a phased return to full hours. Employees may be feeling stressed or anxious about returning to work and therefore line managers should clearly outline what will expected from the employee on their return.
Employers should also be mindful that an employee’s circumstances may have changed as a result of their loss, for example, they may now have responsibility for a new dependant, or have lost a long term partner upon whom they were financially dependent. Line managers should seek to establish an open dialogue with their employees regarding any change in circumstances and where appropriate, accommodate requests for flexible working arrangements.
Whilst at work, it is important that line managers are aware of the effect grief may have on an employee’s mental health and performance. What may look like a lack of motivation, focus or consistency may actually be rooted in the employee’s experience of grief. Employers should be cautious therefore about hastily initiating any capability or disciplinary procedures without first speaking with the employee to understand the reasons for their behaviour.
It is easy to assume that once an employee returns to work and appears to be working productively that they have “got over” their grief. The opposite is often true, and employers should be mindful that grief can be re-triggered, and employees may continue to experience grief long after the initial loss, for example on the anniversary of the death of a loved one.
Grief is complex and confronting it in the workplace can be daunting; however, employers who respond to an employee experiencing grief with patience and empathy are likely to improve working relationships in the long-term.