Suffering from bereavement is a difficult time in anyone’s life, especially if the person you have lost is a close friend or relative and someone you love dearly. Dealing with grief can impact upon someone physically, emotionally and even psychologically, leaving long-lasting scars that might impact upon the individual and their ability to do their job.
Though dealing with bereavement in the workplace can be difficult to manage, it is important that you do manage it and that you provide your employee with the level of support they need to get through this difficult time. This doesn’t just mean providing time off work, but it also includes analysing responsibilities to make sure the employee can satisfy them all and providing emotional support. Research suggests that at any time one in ten employees is likely to be affected by a bereavement (McGuinness, 2009), which means if you have a large team of staff, it is likely that you will have to provide support to at least one employee who is bereaved.

Bereavement policies and the law

To prepare you for managing an employee suffering bereavement it is a good idea to have a clear bereavement policy, with allocated staff and managers being trained in how to handle the situation compassionately. You should also familiarise yourself with the laws associated to grief stricken employees to make sure that you don’t breach any employment rights.
The Employment Rights Act 1996, Section 57(A) states that employers must give a “day one” right, allowing employees “reasonable” time off work to deal with an emergency matter arising from a dependent, which includes death. Here the term “reasonable” is not defined and depends on the situation. Employers are not legally obliged to pay an employee for time off work for bereavement, though many will provide compassionate leave, with this typically being full pay for up to five days. Women who suffer a stillbirth after 24 weeks, or who lose their baby shortly after birth, will still be entitled to maternity leave. The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from discrimination which extends to an employee’s request for leave being refused due to a protected characteristic. In addition, if employees experience mental health issues as a result of their bereavement, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to support their employee.

Speaking to an employee who has suffered a bereavement

Knowing what to say to an employee is often the hardest part, however, it is important that as a manager you do speak to your employee. Try to use an empathetic manner as this will make the employee feel supported and less anxious about missing work. Here are some things you can say/ask:
• Express your condolences.
• Tell the employee that they are not expected to work, make them feel like work comes second in the situation.
• Ask the employee how they would like you to keep in touch and when the best time for you to contact them is. Remember they may not want to be contacted much, especially during the first few days.
• Ask the employee if they are happy to be contacted by co-workers.
• Ask the employee what information they would like you to share with their co-workers and remember any knowledge you have is confidential so refrain from saying more than you should.
Other things you should consider include:
• If the death is likely to be in the media, what course of action do you need to take? For example, what would you do if the workplace or co-workers were approached for an interview?
• Be conscious of the culture of the employee, does their religion have any mourning rituals that might require additional time off?
• If the death was that of a child or spouse it may take the employee longer before they feel ready to come back to work.
• Does the employee require a change in hours or responsibilities to accommodate returning to work? This is especially applicable where someone has lost their spouse and has become a single parent, or parents have lost a child and one parent is not dealing with the loss as well as the other.
• Monitor how many days off work the employee has and ensure that this does not breach the company’s sickness leave limit, if it does some managers might consider excluding some of this time from the employees record.

What you should do if a colleague dies

If a colleague has passed away it is going to impact upon the entire workforce, particularly those closest to the deceased. For this reason it is important the manager handles the situation sensitively. Here are some things to consider:
• Communicating the news of the loss is important; make sure this is done quickly, personally and sensitively.
• Make sure your employees know that there is support for anyone who needs it.
• Managers should contact the employee’s family, offering their condolences and giving them the information of someone the family can speak to if they need to discuss things like pensions or outstanding pay.
• Managers should inform employees about any funeral arrangements that have been made and help to ensure as many employees can attend as possible (if this is at the request of the family).
• If the company decides to do something to commemorate the individual, the family of the deceased should be included; this is also true for anniversaries of the death.
You might find that your workforce becomes disengaged after the loss of a colleague. This can be difficult as you will want to be sympathetic yet equally you need your employees to work effectively so that the business is not impacted more than it needs to be. Reading tips on how to re-engage employees is a good idea, as is something like a support group.
Your employee is not expecting you to have all the answers, to be able to take away their grief or to make them feel instantly better, all they expect is some support and sensitivity.

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