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Helping employees back to work with bereavement support

Employee sitting at meeting table

All employers, at some point, will have an employee coping with the loss of a loved one. Juggling the best interests of the business with the emotional needs of the employee can seem like an impossible task. You will be worried about saying the right thing to them and being sensitive to their needs, while ultimately making sure that the company doesn’t suffer from losing a valued employee for a long period of time.

We spoke to Toby Scott of Dying Matters, who explained that not enough is being done to help bereaved employees. Research undertaken by Dying Matters shows that a third of people who have lost a loved one felt their employer didn’t treat them with compassion.

As if that statistic wasn’t concerning enough, it also emerged that 56 per cent of employees would leave or consider leaving their job if they felt they didn’t receive adequate support from their employer following a bereavement. Clearly, the way employees are treated after a loss matters to them and it should matter to employers too – especially considering that replacing an employee costs an average of £30,000, according to Oxford Economics, because of the amount of time it takes to get a new employee up to “optimum productivity”.

Compassionate leave

Employees are entitled to unpaid “reasonable” time off for “dependents”, including a partner, parent, or child. However, for other relatives, compassionate leave is not required by law.

To avoid disputes and confusion, most companies have a compassionate leave policy, outlined in contracts of employment and employee handbooks. If you are an employer and do not have a compassionate leave policy, it is essential that you take this vital first step towards supporting bereaved employees. Clearly setting out minimum days of paid or unpaid compassionate leave is a solid way of outlining expectations for both you and your employees.

Circumstances may mean that your employee needs more compassionate leave than that which is outlined in your company policy; for example, if they are suddenly widowed and have several young children. Make sure that your policy is flexible for these type of situations.

Contact with the employee

After you hear of an employee’s bereavement, you should think about establishing contact. In your first conversation with them it is important to prioritise their needs and not start asking questions about when they will return to work. You should consider:

  • Offering your condolences
  • Asking whether or not they want their co-workers to know; how much detail to give
  • Assuring them that they have your support and not to worry about work for now

In your second contact with them you may want to start talking about work arrangements and their expectations. Try not to pressure them and always remain compassionate and understanding. You may find that you need to talk to them a third or fourth time before you can work together to set a date for their return.

Returning to work

When a person returns to work, this does not mean that their grief has ended. It does not mean that they are ‘back to normal’ and, as an employer, you should not expect them to be back to 100 per cent productivity immediately.

“People need ongoing support,” explains Toby Scott. “You need to offer the right amount of support so that the person can get back to being the person you hired in the first place – who you presumably hired because they were good at their job and you liked having them there.

“A good employer will recognise, actually, that it costs a lot of money to lose a good member of staff and have to find a replacement. It is in everyone’s interest to offer them support. Now whether that might be a little bit of flexible working, attending some counselling sessions – it depends on the organisation and what they are able to offer.

“It’s important to recognise that the place to start is with the person who is grieving and say, ‘What can we do to help you?’ Rather than saying, ‘That was last year, snap out of it’ or ‘We gave you a week off, what more do you want?’”

As a manager or employer you will, naturally, be concerned that the company’s performance may suffer if a valued employee is not back to work and working at full capacity – but is essential to realise that not offering support will only lengthen the time it takes for that employee to return to a normal professional life.

In the worst cases, bereaved employees can face insensitive statements like “pull yourself together”, “when will you be back to normal?” or “you’re letting the team down”. Rather than help the employee ‘get it together’, these kinds of comments will only further isolate them and prolong their inability to work effectively. This is why compassionate, supportive attitudes are a necessity.

Becoming a Compassionate Employer

The Compassionate Employers programme, developed by the National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) and Dying Matters, is helping employers gain the skills to properly support bereaved employees. The service provides bespoke training, materials and ongoing support to businesses of all sizes.

“It is a benefit to the employer as well as the employee,” explains Toby Scott. “If you get this right, it helps everybody. It makes for a better work environment and reduces your costs overall. So it is in the employer’s interests to get things right.

“Depending on the size of the organisation, it can be tailored to them, and there’s ongoing support. It’s an ongoing commitment from us to help employers support their own staff.”

Visit the Compassionate Employers website to learn more about providing your employees with the support they need.

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