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Published on: Loss & Change Support

How organisations can compassionately support bereavement

Bereavement will understandably affect each individual differently. So why use one framework to support employees when there is no one size fits all approach when it comes to the death of a loved one?

​The sudden death of my mum came at a time when I was a busy HRD managing a large international team whilst working daily with the CEO and board of directors. My manager was supportive from the beginning.

I took three weeks of paid leave in total, before I returned to work in a state of total loss. While I appreciated the initial support and found it to be vastly accommodating, the organisation lacked a longer-term support plan for my bereavement needs.

I often wonder if bereavement needs often fall behind other needs due to their complex and sensitive nature, leading to an uncomfortable topic employers try to avoid.

Research found in the CIPD’s excellent Guide to Compassionate Bereavement showed that just half of employees have awareness of their employers bereavement policy or the support available.

This does not, however, need to be the case. A pragmatic, phased approach can be reasonably straightforward to put in place and communicate. It comes down to creating a holistic, flexible and phased approach, as well as making sure the timing is appropriate on the varying support initiatives you make accessible.

Although I very much disagree with the notion that grief is a linear process, it can be helpful for employers to see bereavement support in terms of three key timebound phases: immediate, short-term and long-term support.

Immediate – crisis support

Timeframe: initial days and subsequent weeks

The immediate aftermath of bereavement can be the most crucial for many employees. In this stage, employees will need endless support to overcome the challenges that come with losing a loved one, such as the physical impact, their emotional shock and logistical practicalities. This includes/ requires:

  • Paid leave for bereavement.
  • Skilled management to ensure clear decisions are made relating to workload distribution and management, and contact support plans moving forward.
  • Bereavement training for management and employees to ensure they are aware of best practice ways to support the griever. A 1:1 meeting and/ or a short webinar should suffice at this stage.
  • Offer the employee a comprehensive list of external support facilities such as bereavement counselling. Make sure that everything already available through the company assistance program (EAP) or the private medical insurance provider) is offered to the employee.
  • Dependent on the griever’s role in the firm, a risk assessment may need to take place due to the physical strains that grief can have.

Short-term – adjustment support​

Timeframe: when the employee returns to work (beginning weeks)

It is clear that the general recovery journey is much longer than the typical bereavement leave allows.
While employees are required to return to work despite their current battle with a recent loss, it is sensible to host a couple of bereavement sessions for their return to work, along with additional coaching and support from management and other employees.This may include:

  • Bereavement coaching- consisting of a one on one support programme, designed to coach the grieving employees in a professional manner, making sure to include specialist support and guidance on returning to work safely and effectively. ​

Longer-term bereavement support

Many grievers successfully apply coping strategies in the first few weeks and months, especially with the early crisis and adjustment support mentioned, and then start to struggle when time passes and awareness subsides. And yet we know that the impact of grief is typically felt months and often years later.

Some steps you can take:

  • Endorse frequent and open communication regarding the bereavement to modify the current support in place.
  • Make sure that bereavement support practices are available within a wider wellbeing framework for mental health and employee wellbeing.
  • Create the building blocks for emotional awareness and mental health in management support programmes to allow employees access to ongoing support.
  • Encourage an open communicative culture throughout the organisation. This can be combined with any existing mental health awareness initiatives currently in place.

While the above recommendations may not cover every need, they certainly form an important framework far beyond the standard bereavement leave policies and support packages.

They are all able to be adjusted to meet the range of needs brought by your organisation, a heightened understanding of the topic, as well as a holistic approach, connecting wider mental health initiatives and support schemes to make a significant impact.

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