With two out of five employees affected by the death of a loved one or colleague, it’s important to support those still struggling with grief and loss.

Following another year in which many people were unable to be with a loved one while they passed away, and funeral restrictions prevented a sense of closure, the already complicated process of grieving has become even more complex.

With different people responding to bereavement in different ways, and managers not wanting to be seen to be intrusive, it can be difficult to know how best to help the two out of five employees (41%) who lost a colleague or loved one during the past year.

On 23 March, the UK’s second National Day of Reflection will be taking place to support the millions of people bereaved during the pandemic, so this month we share three ways to support employees through grief and loss.

Three ways to support employees through grief and loss

1. Create a safe environment

Different people grieve in different ways. Some might want to come back to work as soon as possible, to give themselves something else to think about and not talk about how they’re feeling, others want to take time to reflect and talk about the person they’ve lost.

It’s impossible to know, without asking the person what they need, so managers need to be prepared to offer kind enquiry into how they are and what they can do to support them. Many managers might feel awkward or reluctant doing this, especially if their own response to bereavement is to distract themselves and carry on as normal around others. But many people who attempt this can suddenly experience a wave of grief and feel overwhelmed when they least expect it. Meaning it can be helpful to know their manager is there to support them.

This isn’t about encouraging managers to counsel the employee. It is about preparing them to ask someone how they are and listen with empathy, so they can direct them to any support services in place, such as the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or a charity helpline. Plus creating a safe environment, for example, by making sure bereaved employees know they can step away from the front line for a bit if something triggers their grief.

2. Understand complicated grief

Losing a loved one is one of the most devastating experiences we can go through, especially if it was sudden or unexpected, due to not being able to say goodbye properly, due to Covid.

The stages of grief include shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger that this has happened, depression, loneliness and reflection.

However, grief is different for every person and not everyone will experience all stages of grief. Some people can also become stuck with powerful feelings of guilt or bitterness related to the death. Or hold onto intense feelings of anger that someone was taken away before their time or couldn’t access the healthcare they needed due to the pandemic.

Left unsupported, these unresolved feelings can cause employees to become depressed and withdrawn, angry and aggressive or even turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as alcohol or drugs. Instead of letting things get to this stage, you can give people the option to sign up for a webinar of grief and loss, to understand how to grieve and let go, or refer them for specialist bereavement counselling, to help them let go of complicated feelings linked to the challenges of the past few years.

3. Put bereavement policies in place

As anyone who has ever had to communicate the death of a loved one to colleagues knows, the more prepared you are to do this the better. By thinking through in advance what you will say to employees in the event of an employee’s death and how you will communicate with their family the more time you can spend focusing on showing empathy and compassion. It can also be helpful to consider who will attend the funeral and what you can do to remember someone and how long you should wait until allowing someone else to sit at their desk.

When it comes to supporting employees affected by bereavement, it’s important not to be too prescriptive with bereavement leave. Someone who saw their uncle as a surrogate father might be far more devastated by their death than the death of a parent. While someone touched by a traumatic death, such as a younger family member passing away unexpectedly due to Covid or some other unexpected event, might be deeply distressed by this.

Consider each case on a case-by-case basis and monitor those affected to see how well they’re coping. In the case of an employee passing away, it can also be helpful to think about how to celebrate or mark that person’s life, by setting up a charitable fund in their name, opening a book of remembrance or planting a tree to give people a positive outlet for their emotions. If you haven’t done this yet, this year’s National Day of Reflection provides a good opportunity to look back on the lives of those lost and celebrate them.

Louise Abbs is managing director of PAM Wellbeing, the employee wellbeing consultancy

How PAM Wellbeing can help

Our dedicated bereavement services include:

PAM Assist Employee Assistance Programme – round the clock employee helpline, with all calls answered by qualified counsellors who can provide immediate emotional support

Bereavement Counselling – up to six counselling sessions with a qualified bereavement counsellor, to process feelings of grief and develop coping strategies

Complicated Grief Counselling – clinical assessment to ascertain what support the individual needs and course of CBT or trauma therapy as needed

Loss and Grief Workshop – to help employees understand and normalise the grieving process and cope with loss, whether linked to bereavement or children leaving the nest

PAM Assist Employee Wellbeing App – digital access to expert advice articles, videos, ask an expert sessions and online CBT to help employees cope with bereavement and loss

“The bereavement counselling was very well received by colleagues, who were experiencing loss at a time when they couldn’t even be with their loved ones as they passed away. It helped them to make sense of their situation and gave them access to an incredibly responsive counselling team that helped them to cope.”

Joanne McDonnell, Wellbeing Operations Director, Marks & Spencer (Read the full case study in our Health at Work Report)

To discuss how best we can support you, please contact us