Returning to work after losing a loved one can be an incredibly difficult and emotionally fragile time. As an employer, it is crucial that you provide a supportive, open and flexible working environment for employees going through a bereavement.

Bereavement leave policy

A bereavement leave policy provides both line managers and employees with guidance and reassurance of what to expect if they experience a bereavement. If managers do not have a bereavement policy to refer to and have complete discretion over leave, workload and flexible working, there may be inconsistencies in the way colleagues are treated across the organisation when they experience a bereavement.

Invite staff for open conversation

It is important that employers invite and encourage an employee who has experienced a bereavement to have open discussions and share how they are feeling. These conversations can help both the line manager and the employee, as it allows them to better plan and manage their employee’s workload while they are off. This could mean that deadlines are pushed back or that another member of the team takes on a project in the short term, so that the bereaved employee is not stressed about work while they are on bereavement leave.

Try to be empathetic

It is important that a line manager is empathetic towards an employee who has been bereaved. This helps build an open conversation and helps the employee feel comfortable speaking to their line manager. Often empathy can manifest itself into smaller acts, including ensuring a recently bereaved employee is not faced with situations that may be difficult for them. It could also mean allowing them to leave early when they are upset or simply making time to have an open conversation.

Discuss time away from the workplace

A conversation about when the colleague anticipates returning to work may not be appropriate in the first days of bereavement. However, it is important to start a dialogue which will allow an open discussion around how they are coping and the organisation’s procedure on bereavement leave, when they might be ready to return to work, and any adjustments that might help with this (e.g. a phased return). Many circumstances can make it often difficult for a bereaved colleague to judge how they will feel in the workplace. A swift return to work does not necessarily mean that a colleague will not need support in the future.

Manage expectations during the return to work

Line managers should hold regular reviews with the employee to ensure communication remains open and the employee feels able to share any issues as they arise. Managers should be aware that bereavement can have an impact on performance and this should be taken into account. On average, the productivity of a person experiencing intense grief is assumed to be 70% of their normal capacity in the first six months. It is therefore important to provide a safe space for them to talk about how long and what support they need.

Offer flexibility around work patterns

Employees who have recently experienced a bereavement may need to work different hours or shifts or undertake a slightly different role in order to help reduce stress or deal with practical matters related to the loss. A bereavement will frequently lead to changes in the personal and financial circumstances of the bereaved colleague. A colleague who loses their partner, for example, may become responsible for raising their children as a single parent. A colleague whose sibling dies may take on caring responsibilities for an elderly parent.

Signpost to external resources

Workplaces can offer information about bereavement support available in the wider community, including written material, physical and virtual support groups, counselling, and group therapies. Employers should not push employees towards a particular source of help, but provide them with information about what is available.

Create safe spaces to discuss grief

Organisations have an important role to play in encouraging conversations about grief in the workplace. Having the courage to talk openly about personal experiences of death and grief or providing time and space for employees to discuss it can help normalise conversations and raise awareness among staff about resources available to them internally and externally.

Source: Sue Ryder's Online Bereavement Service