Discussion of the support an organisation can provide for a bereaved employee, and the factors that may be relevant to different individuals in seeking to adopt a sensitive approach

Bereavement, whether sudden and unexpected or one which allows loved ones the chance to say goodbye, is never easy. What support can an organisation provide for their employee? When it comes to providing assistance, there is more to it than simply dusting off the organisation’s bereavement policy.

Surprisingly, not all employers have a bereavement policy. Of those that do, the period of time off after suffering a loss varies, and is at the employer’s discretion. Leave tends to be between a few days and up to a week. The employee will get the longest time off for close family members. The loss of a friend will, at most, allow one day off to attend the funeral.

Whilst this can assist an employee to focus on arrangements and the funeral itself, it is often once the funeral has taken place that they require additional support. Shock, or the sheer exhaustion of dealing with a protracted illness, can have a severe impact. Whilst some members of staff wish to have the structure and distraction of work, many others suffer from anxiety and depression following bereavement.

With more staff staying in the workplace for much longer than previous generations, this is a situation that managers and HR professionals will encounter more and more. The question is what more can an employer do to assist at such a difficult time?

For those staff members who suffer from mental health illnesses such as depression, it is important to have a line of communication between the employee and the employer – perhaps with HR or the line manager. Where possible, an early referral to the business’s occupational health provider is crucial, both as a pathway to accessing other medical assistance and in securing the best chance of the employee having a successful return to work in the future. The objective should be to have a referral and appointment within four weeks of the diagnosis of depression. This is an extremely delicate conversation to have with someone so recently bereaved.

For an employee who wishes to have the distraction of work, there can be issues with performance, which can dip substantially on their return. At this point, managers have a key role to play in discussing the support the employee wishes to have. A return to work discussion about workload levels and agreeing to have weekly catchups with the employee are recommended.

Keeping a watchful eye on the team member is also a must. Consideration should also be had to whether the employee has a mental health condition that would qualify as a disability. If so, there will be a requirement to make reasonable adjustments and not to take action that would discriminate due to the person's disability.

Financial matters can add greatly to the stress and anxiety of the bereaved staff member. The loss of a loved one who was the main breadwinner can have a devastating impact on the employee and their family, especially where there was not time to put financial affairs in order. Only by talking to them will this come to light. Some employers may be able to help with zero interest loans or directing the employee to additional sources of support and advice.

In conclusion, managers and HR professionals are the key to dealing with staff struggling with bereavement. They can provide support and can also pass on vital information to the employee, including the fact that any employee assistance programme provided by the employer is so much more than just a "telephone helpline". It will be for the manager or HR to tease out whether the employee has financial worries caused by their change in circumstances. However, employers must ask themselves this question – have managers and HR professionals been trained to engage in these sensitive discussions with confidence?


The Author
Kim Pattullo is a partner with the employment team at Addleshaw Goddard, Edinburgh
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