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Steve Williams: Managing bereavement in the workplace

Friday 19 September 2014

In our blog series on workplace bereavement, Steve Williams, Acas Head of Equality, talks about dealing with bereavement sensitively and fairly in the workplace.

 

Steve Williams

Steve Williams has been Head of Equality at Acas since 2001. Before that he was Head of Race Relations at the Employment Advisory Service.

Steve Williams

Research showing that at any time one in ten employees may be affected by bereavement means this a real hard-edged workplace issue. But people are different, and experience grief in an intensely personal manner. Some bereaved employees may be unable to face work for some time, others may find coming back to work quickly dulls the pain of loss; some employees may crumble at the mention of the dead person's name, others who are similarly reminded may draw strength from thinking about all the good things that person stood for.

So as a manager, how can you respond sensitively, empathetically and fairly, knowing that people need different types of support?

The Acas guidance helps employers, line managers and HR managers to make good decisions based on the needs of the bereaved. It gives a framework and good practice examples to enable compassionate conversations to take place - and also encourages employers to discuss development of a bereavement policy with staff. Importantly, within any policy, managers should have a degree of flexibility to better match the needs of the employee with the needs of the business.

We know that it is a difficult issue to deal with, offering sympathy or finding the right words to acknowledge the loss can sometimes risk sounding insincere or mechanical, yet research evidence shows bereaved employees remember how issues were handled in the early days of their bereavement.

Research also shows that over half of employees who do not receive what they considered proper support from their employer would consider leaving. So we know it is critical for managers to get this right. To offer sympathy and whatever support they need to their employee - and meaning it.

But we also know that the importance of sensitive handling of bereavement in the workplace does not end after the funeral - many people will take weeks, months or even years to come to terms with a death. That is not to say that these people will not be able to work. But they may need time off or certain types of support and consideration at particular times, for example on birthdays, or the anniversary of the death.

We recommend that managers take the time to listen to the bereaved, to ask what they need and how they would like to stay in contact. Give them the reassurance that they must take all the time they need and not worry about work. Managers should emphasise that they are there to help - and that the employee should stay in touch about their needs and plans, and that they recognise that these may change. It's also a good idea to ask how the bereaved would like their colleagues to be informed of their loss, and if they are okay to be contacted by others at work.

To help make the right decisions, read the Acas guidance at: www.acas.org.uk/bereavement or contact our helpline on 0300 123 1100.

4 Comments

  • Posted by Pat, The Online Counselling Service  |  22 November 2015, 12:36AM

    How unfortunate and shocking. After experiencing the loss of your mother and wife what you needed and deserved was support!

  • Posted by John Williams  |  12 January 2015, 2:16PM

    That is pathetic. Always work for human beings. Never have animals as your bosses!!

  • Posted by Mick, Surrey, England  |  22 September 2014, 1:41PM

    Only wish I had saw this earlier, both my wife and mother died this year, (wife aged 36 and mother aged 69).

    My wife died on a Thursday evening, I was off the following Monday but in on the Tuesday night and back full time on the Wednesday.

    My mother died (in Glasgow) a couple of months later, I travelled up to be with her as she died on the Tuesday morning, was back at work the following day in Surrey.

    I was allowed a day off for the funerals of both, an investigation into my work started the day of my mothers funeral, and I've been suspended since.

    Hard to believe, but true

  • Posted by Debbie Kerslake, Cruse Bereavement Care  |  19 September 2014, 4:51PM

    Every single day Cruse Bereavement Care hears the stories of the impact of bereavement in the workplace.

    How do you go back to work when your husband had died leaving you bereft?
    How can you think about work when your child has been killed in a road crash?
    How can you cope as a manager when you can’t stop thinking about your dad who is not coping alone after your mum died?
    What do you do when one of your employees has died? 

    Bereavement in the workplace is an issue that affects every single employer – large and small. 

    It is an issue that affects every sector, every industry.

    It is an issue that will affect every employee, whatever their role.

    No employer can afford to ignore it.

    Cruse Bereavement Care wants every single employer to use the Acas guidance and consider how they treat their bereaved employees.

    What bereavement leave do they give?
    What contact is made while a bereaved employee is off work?
    How are they supported on their return?

    Bereavement is an individual and long journey. Grief has no time limit. There are ups and downs. Employers, line managers and work colleagues can play a significant role in providing the support that those who are bereaved need.

    Often however, bereaved employees are left isolated and unsupported because people are scared of saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing. They are scared of doing the wrong thing. So they do nothing.

    Cruse has developed a new 1 day training course – Managing Bereavement in the Workplace to help line managers, HR professionals, union representatives and work colleagues understand what they can do and what they can say.

    Cruse can provide a bereavement toolkit that gives a line manager the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ as well as supportive leaflets to hand to a bereaved employee.

    I have been asked – How can employers afford to support bereaved employees?

    My response? With the impact on productivity, morale, sickness, health and safety and retention, how can they afford not to?

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