Life after death: how to support your bereaved staff

David Price – CEO of Health Assured

August 28 2020

Grieving at work is a tough ordeal. Yet it’s one your workforce faces far more often than you’d think.

Studies show one in ten Brits is dealing with the loss of a loved one at any one time. Couple that with COVID-19, and you’ll probably need to care for a grieving employee fairly soon.

Here’s what you need to do to support your bereaved staff.

Offer sympathy in the immediate aftermath

Managing a grieving staff member is not a box-ticking exercise.

There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone is different, and you need to be flexible with the ways you support them.

First, find a private place to express your sympathy, or call them if they’re at home. Be sincere. Check what you can do to help. Tell them they don’t have to work if they don’t want to (there are laws on this—we’ll get to those later).

Ask how they’d like to stay in touch while they’re off, and whether they want their colleagues to know about the loss. Finally, see if there’s any important work that someone else should cover—but only if they’re able to talk about that.

It might be tempting to avoid talking to your employee about their grief altogether. But going out of your way to support them can help:

  • Show staff that you value them and boost your working relationships
  • Reduce stress and anxiety and keep your workforce productive
  • Avoid long periods of staff leave

And once your employee heads home to grieve, your support shouldn’t stop.

Keep in contact while the employee is at home

After a few days, it’s a good idea to check up on the employee to show that you’re still thinking of them.

Call or email them to ask how they are. See if there’s anything you can do to help them and whether they’d like colleagues to contact them with condolences.

Remember, some religions expect their followers to mourn for a set time or follow certain bereavement customs.

If your employee is religious, let them know that they’re free to observe all of their traditions as required. (Otherwise, you could face a discrimination claim under the Equality Act 2010.)

Then, if appropriate, you could ask if they’ve thought about returning to work. But be careful not to force them into any decisions.

If they return before they’re ready, they could harm the productivity of the workplace. But the same goes if they stay off work for too long.

It’s a delicate balance. So what does the law say?

Check UK rules on staff bereavement leave

An employee only has the legal right to time off if:

  • A ‘dependant’ dies, for example:
    • Their partner
    • Their parent
    • Someone else who relied on them
  • Their child dies or they have a stillbirth after 24 weeks’ pregnancy

Time off for dependants gives employees a right to time off to deal with an emergency, but not to grieve.

There are no rules on whether you have to pay staff who take time off for dependants, or how long they can take off if a dependant dies. The law simply says the length of time should be ‘reasonable’.

But if an employee’s child dies when they’re under the age of 18, from 6th April 2020 the employee has the right to two weeks off.

They also get statutory parental bereavement pay, which is either £151.20 a week or 90% of their average weekly wages (whichever is lower) if they’ve worked for you for more than 26 weeks.

Some employees will feel unable to work even if the person who died wasn’t their child or a dependant.

That’s why lots of UK workplaces have a bereavement policy that sets out how much time staff can take off, and whether you pay them or not.

Check your policy before you speak to the employee about returning. If you don’t have a bereavement policy, it’s a good idea to get expert help writing one to make sure you get it right.

Then, you need to start preparing for when the employee comes back to work.

Carefully manage the employee’s return

Once you and your worker agree on a date, ask if there are any changes they’d like you to make that could help them settle back in.

For example, they might not feel ready to speak to the public or their colleagues for a while. So, you could offer them a temporary behind-the-scenes role until they recover. Or, you could set them up to work from home if possible.

Then, when they restart work, keep a close eye on how they’re getting on. Grief can trigger depression or another mental health condition, and they might need extra support.

An employee assistance programme (EAP) gives your staff access to 24/7 wellbeing advice, face-to-face counselling, and a suite of online tools to help them stay happy and healthy.

EAPs cover much more than grief, too. From alcohol to debt, childcare to legal issues, an EAP gives you and your workers immediate, professional help with any personal issue.

Learn more about how an EAP can cut absence rates and boost productivity in your workplace. Book your free consultation with an expert today on 0800 028 2420

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