Dealing with bereavement in your workplace

People in western societies increasingly don’t think well about the risk of dying. Whether that is going too early or living too long. Indeed with rolling 24 hour news, death is increasingly thought of something which is likely to happen to somebody else somewhere far away. So when there is a death in a work community, we often flounder in our attempts to handle it confidently. The predominant feeling is worrying about what to say and do and that can result in the biggest risk – not communicating at all – actually coming to pass. That major risk is not saying or doing enough and leaving the bereaved colleague feeling isolated.

In our business we have as one of our guiding values that we treat “people as people”. That is a good place to start in this matter.

What qualifies me to have a view on this? Well, involvement with the leading bereavement charity Winston’s Wish over 15 years, five of those as a Trustee, and involvement in supplying life insurance to employee benefits schemes for all my career is a start. However my main reference point is growing up in rural Ireland where attitudes to death and bereavement could not be more different than 21st Century London.

Recently, there has been a campaign to bring in the concept of an entitlement to bereavement leave from work in the manner of maternity and parental leave. With evidence of many employers being clumsy in this it is clear why some experts in the field are lobbying hard for a baseline standard to be set.

However this is a leadership issue and the leaders in the business have a choice. They can show by example how to engage with a bereaved colleague or they can set a “policy” and retreat to their executive corridor leaving it to HR. Unlike global and large corporates, we in the mid-corporate and SME sectors have not yet fallen into the habit of seeing the people that work for and with us day-to-day as numbers in budgets and business projections. We should start from the assumption that we should be both flexible and generous and entirely mindful and know that bereavement leave guidelines should only be that – a guide. There is a huge difference in the needs of someone in their early 20s losing a grandparent who made it to their 10th decade and a colleague who is a parent who has just lost their child after spending the last six weeks at their bedside in a hospice.

The first observation I would make is don’t assume that people will get over it or indeed, assume that there is any sort of closure. Bereaved people adjust to a different life and you won’t be able to predict when their loss will affect their emotional or indeed their physical wellbeing.

Beware of doing too little or too much. If you are generous in terms of allowing time off for the practical things, you will be repaid from those employees. Treat people as people. If you are the business or department leader don’t hesitate to communicate and to immediately express sympathy. That may simply be a short text followed up by a sympathy card on behalf of the whole team. Most critically make sure that you talk to your bereaved colleague immediately on their return to work. Encourage people at all levels in the team to acknowledge the colleague’s loss. Just use the old Irish formula of taking them by the hand, looking them in the eye and saying “I am very sorry for your loss”. That then enables the colleague to talk as much or as little about the situation as they want but they know it is acknowledged and is not out of bounds in conversation.

Beware too of allowing people to become isolated. That can happen if they stay away from work too long. Again, I look into my early life experience and recent deaths in my family back in Ireland. A wake is very effective in that it does not allow the bereaved family to retreat into itself it can emphasise the support that is there for you from your connections and community. More convincing evidence of the importance of reducing the risk of isolation comes from the work of the leading bereavement charities who emphasise the value of bringing bereaved children and their parents together with their peers.

Ultimately, worrying about saying the wrong thing can lead to not saying anything, leaving the bereaved individual feeling isolated and with a sense that their reality being ignored. Take the initiative, communicate openly and sincerely and lead your people by example that to be human and caring in this situation is the entirely natural thing to do.