Supporting Employees through Bereavement and Grief
A few years ago in 2019, Emma McNulty famously petitioned for the introduction of pet bereavement leave after she lost her job after her beloved dog died. Pet wellness experts Itch, have since launched a campaign to encourage employers to offer a pet bereavement leave policy for pet parents that experience loss.
This reminded me of times during my own career where I’ve needed the support of my employer, and how important it is for them to be sensitive enough to appreciate your individual circumstances and focus on support rather than sanctions when you’re not at your best. How you choose to handle these times has a significant effect on the culture and productivity of your team.
How to support employees through grief and loss?
There's no set length of time to grieve
A search for ‘bereavement leave’ on petitioning website change.org returns 29 results, consisting mainly of calls to extend paid bereavement leave in a variety of situations. CIPD research suggests that the average amount of time granted to UK workers following the death of a close relative is 4 days.
But what is the right amount?
Well, there isn’t one, becauase every person and every situation is different. The law says that employees are entitled to a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off to deal with a bereavement (or 2 weeks’ leave following the death of a child).
But grief is highly personal and depends on all sorts of things. The first priority should be to give some space. Your Bereavement Leave policy might define how much leave you will be prepared to provide, but should also be flexible enough to empower managers to use discretion (providing they’re given the tools and support to do this). Organisations such as Mind and Cruse have some useful resources.
Don’t judge the 'significance' of loss
Just because you didn’t have a close relationship with your aunty or your cousin or your next door neighbour, or because you believe that an employee should be able to cope with the death of a friend they've not seen in a few years, or even their cat, doesn’t mean that’s the case for everyone.
You may have to deal with an employee who is grieving due to the death of someone that isn’t related to them, but whose death is affecting their mental health and therefore their ability to work. And sometimes, that might just be a pet.
Equally, you may support a colleague who has lost someone very close to them, who would prefer to stay in work to take their mind off things.
Ultimately, we should want to create an environment that enables people to thrive. We’re failing at this if we’re forcing our employees to put in the hours when they really need to be at home coming to terms with a significant life event. And we're failing them if we force them to take time off work when being at home alone is painful.
That said, it doesn’t mean we need to agree to extended periods of paid leave for anyone that asks for it. The best approach is to maintain open and honest conversations, and help the employee work out the best combination of compassionate leave, sick leave, annual and unpaid leave to ensure they feel supported.
Don’t forget that your employees are humans. Don’t ask for proof of bereavement. Encourage managers to put themselves in the employee’s shoes, consider what they will be thinking and feeling, and what else might be on their plate. There could be financial implications, childcare issues, a change in living arrangements and huge amounts of admin following the death of a loved one, that means someone may need further time off to help them deal with these issues whilst also looking after their own mental health. Bereavement can also stir up many underlying feelings of grief and loss, that impact our ability to feel mentally healthy at work. Asking for proof or a 'justification' of the legitimacy of someones relationship to someone they've lost could just be the 'tip of the iceberg' for them.
Make the employee aware of your Employee Assistance Programme and, signpost them to local and national grief charities that may be useful. Then, take a flexible approach to making adjustments to working hours, environment and workload while they work through this difficult time. Establish what they want you to communicate to other employees, and respect these wishes.
What about the cost?
The cost of bereavement leave, especially for small organisations, is a legitimate concern. Arguably however, the cost, impact on productivity and potential damage to employer brand caused by losing a great employee who didn’t feel supported when they needed it the most, can be much greater.
How you support an employee who’s experiencing grief is probably the most important memory an individual will have of your organisation and its managers. To quote the wonderful Dr. Maya Angelou:
“people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”