Bereavement and work

In this episode of the Acas Podcast, we discuss how employers can support their staff when someone has died.

We're joined by:

  • Tracey Taylor-Huckfield, director of people and corporate services at Sue Ryder
  • Andy Langford, clinical director at Cruse
  • Lucie Garvin, subject matter expert at Acas

We discuss:

  • how to handle a bereavement at work
  • supporting mental health and wellbeing
  • legal rights and considerations
  • how to provide a supportive and empathetic environment

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Chau Doan: Welcome to the Acas Podcast. I'm Chau Doan and today we'll be talking about bereavement at work and what employers can do to help them support their staff.

I'm joined today by Tracey Taylor-Huckfield, director of people and corporate services at Sue Ryder, Andy Langford, clinical director at Cruse, and Lucie Garvin, subject matter expert at Acas. Hello everyone and thank you for joining me today.

All: Hello.

Chau: So, let me first start off by saying I think that talking about death and bereavement can still be seen as quite a taboo subject, especially within the workplace. And it can be quite a sensitive and difficult issue for many. So, I was wondering, Tracey, if there's anything employers and organisations can do to help break down those barriers and stigmas that are associated with it?

Tracey Taylor-Huckfield: I think the first thing employers need to have in place is a policy so that people know the organisation is very much committed to supporting individuals if they obviously experience a bereavement, and making sure that policy is known. So managers can talk about it, it's available on the intranet, questions are asked around it in the annual survey. So that the subject of bereavement is very much an open one and features across the workplace culture throughout different opportunities. And yeah, just making sure people are aware this is very much a support network and different mechanisms of support available across the organisation.

Chau: You mentioned having a policy in place, then can I then refer those to you then Lucie. So for example, if an employer doesn't have a policy in place. So if they don't have anything that handles bereavement or compassionate leave at work. If they're a small company with little resources, then what can they do in that situation then?

Lucie Garvin: We know policies, as Tracey says, can be incredibly helpful. But we know also, it's not possible for everybody to have a policy. So, if an employer doesn't have a policy, but they need to support someone who's had a bereavement, I think it's important just to remember to be sensitive, but also consistent and clear with the approach that they're going to be taking. Could be, for example, if they're having a conversation, putting it in writing afterwards, what's been discussed and what's been agreed. That can be really helpful, perhaps if somebody is dealing with a bereavement there and then, they can actually go back to the record of the conversation that they've had when they're ready to.

Types of things maybe that the employer should think about if they are having a discussion with somebody, but they don't have a policy. So beforehand, they should have a think about what type of leave bereavement is available, how much time off is going to be available, whether that's going to be paid leave or unpaid leave.

So yeah, there's lots of things an employer can do if they don't have a policy. And like I say, maybe just keeping that record after the conversation and sharing that can be a really good way just to make sure that everybody is clear and understands what's been agreed.

Chau: So then, if it's to do with an experience of bereavement. So, I think we know that bereavement can be very different and individual to each person. If a worker were to unfortunately witness an accident at work, if it's like a fatal incident, Andy are there any signs that an employee should look out for if they have concerns about that member of staff?

Andy Langford: I think first off, what's really helpful to remember, as difficult as this might sound, is that actually if you're an employer it's not a question of if you're going to have to have this conversation. It's a question of when, if you haven't already. You know, at Cruse, we see bereavement as a life event. It's not an easy life event. It can be very difficult, very challenging. But it is a life event. It happens to all of us at some point.

And for many people, if someone's experienced a bereavement that's quite sudden, perhaps where they haven't been with the individual who's died when they've wanted to be, so they had plans for those last moments and it wasn't possible. If they've witnessed something that is quite traumatic, particularly if it is in the workplace where they're looking to return. All of those types of situations can be more complicated for someone.

And it's not unusual to experience things like physical illness. So stomach problems, back problems, chronic headaches – they're not unusual in bereavement, when it's particularly challenging. Signs of stress as well, and anxiety, not unusual again. Things like loss of sleep. So we've certainly come across situations where people have found it difficult to return to work because they can't get up in the morning. It's not that they don't want to go to work. It's that actually they've been spending all night up thinking about the person who's died, and being unable to settle so they're fatigued.

Also, one that's really helpful to be aware of is loss of concentration. So, it takes a capacity of our thought process to work through bereavement and understand where we are with bereavement. It's like having something we're thinking about consistently, a lot of the time. And so that takes up our capacity to concentrate on other things for a while.

So it's not unusual to find someone who's recently bereaved, or whose grief has been retriggered by another event, to find it's difficult to focus on detail, to assimilate complex information or also to take on board fairly simple information, but at volume and at speed. But often this could look to an employer like someone's performance is slipping, when in actual fact, with the right support and giving a little more time and flexibility, people can continue to cope. Their mental health and wellbeing can improve. And also, they can continue to perform at work.

Chau: So, it sounds like good communication is key to help people who are potentially experiencing that grief in the bereavement. And you also touched on mental health as well of staff. So, can I then ask you then Tracey, if an employer does have concerns about their staff member’s mental health and their wellbeing during the bereavement, is there any support that they could provide to them or any signposting that they could offer to their staff as well?

Tracey: Absolutely, I think open communication is critical throughout – I think that has been mentioned by everyone so far – to enable the dialogue, enable a safe space where people feel they can talk, they can share. And that then enables that channel for people to say 'I'm struggling', or for a manager to say and observe 'I can see you're having some difficulties here'.

At Sue Ryder, we do have a network of mental health first aiders. And there's very much a dovetailing there in terms of the bereavement support and the mental health challenges that can come with that. Obviously, we have an employee assistance programme, where people can access counselling. And on the Sue Ryder website, I’m sure Cruse obviously as well, lots of signposting, lots of resources, lots of organisations that can help provide guidance, information about – yes, the bereavement support and other mechanisms and channels they need to access to deal with that – but also the mental health. The two are very much sort of alongside each other, I think, in terms of the impact that bereavement has on individuals, obviously Andy was talking about.

So, at Sue Ryder we advocate 8 steps for supporting individuals, which starts with the policy and that clarity of the organisation's position on that. Yes, the open conversation absolutely has to happen throughout. Agree how you're going to liaise and communicate throughout. How regularly to keep touch with someone and what you can share and tell everybody else. And that empathy, what to say, how to say it.

Again, there's resources on the Sue Ryder website. And our Grief Kind campaign is about tips and ways to approach and how to pick up the conversation and reach out, and there's lots of information there. And offer time away so that people do know they can have time off. It doesn't have to be all in one hit. They could take a few days, a few days later, a few days on a key anniversary, like the individual's birthday. But people need to know there's no stigma attached to that – that you can ask for some leave and have that conversation openly.

And the flexibility, I think, picking up on what Andy said. People aren't necessarily back at work and functioning in their normal capacity. It comes in waves. They could be great one day, not so much the next. So flexibility, perhaps adjusted hours, part-time working, phased return, all those sorts of things. And managing that expectation across the team, which obviously Andy I acknowledge everything he was saying there about agreeing. Some people don't want to share what's happened. So how do you handle that across the team to let them know they need to be supportive and sympathetic of a colleague, but without being able to share too much detail?

So that is a challenge that people need to recognise. Obviously, the confidentiality, if people want to have that, and sensitivity. But absolutely that safe space to discuss the silence. Saying nothing is the worst thing colleagues and managers can do. We need to open that channel and let them know we're here to support and absolutely, the signposting. Other resources, counselling, exploration of the mental health impact.

Andy: I just wanted to build on something that Tracey said further, just to give an example of the flexibility and how important it is. So at Cruse we work a lot with people who've been traumatically bereaved, and it's quite sudden bereavement too. So, things like bereavement through suicide through homicide, through road traffic accidents.

Now, it's not unusual, in fact it's compulsory, with those cases that an inquest is held. Now, this is a prime example of where that flexibility is really needed. Because if someone is bereaved suddenly in one of those ways, then you will guarantee that at some point down the line, they not only of course will be making arrangements for the funeral and attending and everything around that, and there may be executor duties.

But actually, somewhere down the line, they're going to have to attend an inquest. Now, that inquest could be a month down the line from the bereavement. Not unusual for it to be 6 months as well. So, it can be anytime within that. For some complex cases it can be longer. So, it may well be that you think that actually, Andy’s had his time off, that should be ok now, he's got support around him. But actually, Andy might not feel that great about what's going on, going up to the inquest 5 months later. And he might actually practically need some time even to travel to the inquest, if it's in a different city. It might even be in a different country.

So, there are those processes that are legal processes that we also – it’s really advantageous for us to accommodate people. Because if we don't as employers, then what we find is that then draws someone's capacity away from doing the job, as well as it being the right human thing to do.

Chau: I think that's a really interesting point as well. And I think sometimes people forget about these legal obligations that employers might have, in regards to having a bereavement at work as well. So, you mentioned about taking time off to deal with funeral arrangements. So then can I ask then, Lucie in regards to that, are there other legal obligations that the employer should consider when they are handling a bereavement at work then?

Lucie: Yeah, absolutely. We've heard a lot around the importance of, not necessarily just the legal requirements, it’s dealing with these situations sensitively, understanding, being led by the person as well can be incredibly important. And understanding that their needs are going to change, grief doesn't follow a set path. So communicating in a calm, empathetic way can really help employees feel supported, kind of ease those anxieties about work as well.

But yes, there are legal obligations as well. We've heard mention, their concentration levels. So, there may be obligations for health, safety and wellbeing. If individuals are working in particular industries, using heavy machinery, chemicals, etc, then the employer should be looking at risk assessments. Reviewing risk assessments, maybe doing individual risk assessments with either specialists in the workplace, or the individuals themselves are quite often best placed to kind of share the difficulties that they're having and share what can help as well, to mitigate those risks.

There's rights to time off. So, there may be the right to time off for dependents, if a dependent has died – that's unpaid time off. That could be time off immediately following the death, but it may also be time off for the funeral or to make funeral arrangements at short notice as well.

There may also be other rights to time off. So, there's the right for parents – parental bereavement leave. So that's where a child has died after 24 weeks' pregnancy, or under the age of 18. Those parents will be entitled to up to 2 weeks. That may be 2 weeks in one go, 2 weeks separately, or just the 1 week if they need that.

There may also be some equality and diversity considerations as well. Under the Equality Act, employers need to be mindful not to discriminate. So, some folks may have some specific religious or cultural observations following a death. And the employer should be mindful of that, respectful of that as well.

And of course, if they're not sure what a person needs, it's often best to ask them. Of course, they may be able to find information on the internet themselves. But the person may be best to share what support they need in that moment, as well. Employees might have contractual entitlements way above enhanced rights, above the contractual or the legal minimums. And also maybe the right to flexible working as well. We've talked about the importance of flexibility, whether that's a short-term arrangement or a longer-term arrangement. Employees may have the right to request flexible working as well. So yeah, there are definitely legal rights there too.

Chau: You mentioned about flexibility there, Lucie. So then can I then ask you then Tracey, I know that a lot of companies have been working from home during this pandemic. And normally, you would get that one to one interaction with your staff if you're working in an office setting. So are there things that employers could do in this situation now to support staff who might be going through bereavement, where they would normally have that face to face conversation in the past, whereas now they're working remotely, they might not have that option now. Are there steps that the employer could take to support that with their staff?

Tracey: I think that is a really valid point at the moment in the current climate. People are working remotely, they are isolated, they don't have their families and friends around them as much perhaps as in previous times. Obviously, everyone's using Zoom and Teams and what have you. There's the phone as well you know, old school, go back to traditional ways of communication, picking that up.

So, whilst yes, it's obviously not as comforting, to not be in person and be able to see and feel and express empathy, there's other avenues. And it is really about keeping in touch, but without obviously going overboard and calling every day and things like that. So, it's about agreeing the rules of engagement I think and just making sure that an individual knows their line manager, their work colleagues are there for them. Even just dropping a little text or WhatsApp, checking in, how are you doing today? Do you fancy a chat? You may not get a response if they don't want to chat, but you know that's fine. But reaching out, making sure the channels continue to be open – there are other ways.

And of course, people could meet if they have obviously been able to do lateral flows and check that they are safe, and they are able to come together – could always make that offer, as well. So, I think it's about exploring for an individual, what do they need, what would work for them, and what's a good way to make sure we are providing the support that they need.

Andy: The other thing to bear in mind is what we've been finding is that generally people are happier, or more content to accept support, if they've had, when they've been working remotely, if they previously had workplace relationships with each other when they were face-to-face. So that does create a bit of an issue then for people who have joined teams, joined organisations, when they are remote and they continue to be so.

I think it's just useful to flag these challenges. Because then as a manager, as a boss, what we can be mindful of is that if we have a fairly new employee, but they're working remotely, and actually, most of their colleagues haven't met them face-to-face, and they haven't met most of their colleagues face-to-face, it's just to be additionally mindful of that, and perhaps reach out earlier. Or perhaps prompt other people to draw alongside them over particular tasks, involve them with team activities, just to make sure that someone isn't logistically alone with their work for any more than they need to be. That there actually are those connections that are made within teams, within departments and within organisations.

Or otherwise, you could find someone sitting at home with their grief, trying to do the work, but also sitting with this massive load. Whereas actually with a bit of social connection, even online or on the phone, it can make a world of difference.

Chau: And we've discussed previously before about how people handle grief and bereavement differently at work. And I know that sometimes with some staff, they do take that period of time off work to adjust to that period. So, can I ask then, Lucie, if an employer does have concerns regarding any long-term absences, for example for a member of staff, then what steps can they take to address that situation?

Lucie: I mean, I guess if somebody is off longer term, I mean there could be a number of reasons for that being necessary. Some people do just need longer to adjust and to be working through their grief and their bereavement. And if an employer is concerned, then I think as we've heard, having those frequent check-ins – not too frequent – it doesn't need to be too intense, too much. But those frequent check-ins, conversations, with a member of staff. Being led by them as to what they might need, what support they might need.

The employee might be anxious about returning to work. Sometimes that can make them take longer, maybe, than they'd anticipated they needed. So maybe understanding that anxiety, if it's as we've said seeing people again, or coming back into the workplace and trying to get back into normal workloads.

Having that flexibility, as we said earlier, can make a huge difference if they know that those options are there, that they don't have to come back in and be bang, straight into their normal workloads, having the normal conversations internally, externally.

So, things like phased returns. You know, having that conversation at the right time can be exactly what that person needs to know that they don't have to come back straight away to exactly what they were doing before. It might even be as simple as coming in to have a coffee on a regular basis, or once or twice before they start their phased return.

It might even be that an occupational health referral could be appropriate. We don't expect employers to be the experts. And there are lots of excellent resources and signposts. But if the employer does have access to an occupational health service, or an employee assistance service, then that can be a really good opportunity. And that might be more than once throughout this person's time off. It can be more about supporting the individual to feel confident to return, rather than putting that pressure on them to return. The danger of doing that, of course, is that they might return too early. And it may then mean that they have a further period of time off, which may be longer or more disruptive for the individual, and maybe even for the workplace, at a later date.

There may also be considerations for the employer, legal considerations. So, it may be that somebody has an underlying health condition that has been affected by the bereavement. It may be that their mental health is suffering as well. And, of course over a longer term that may be classified as a disability. So, the employer does need to be aware of those obligations as well and be sensitive to that. It's often best not to try and think about whether somebody's condition is a disability or not. Rather, just focus on what support can be provided instead.

Tracey: I just wanted to build on what Lucie was saying there. And I think what's key to all of that is maintaining the communication. When people end up on long-term absence, there can be a propensity to leave the communication gap even longer and not be as proactive and keeping in touch regularly. By keeping in touch and exploring what the problems are, the challenges, and how they can support could actually facilitate a return to work. If the situation is just left, then that absolutely isn't going to be achieved.

And the other thing I just wanted to add was about other resources that are available, perhaps for smaller employers who don't have access to the likes of an EAP [employee assistance programme] and aren't able to fund that. There are services such as at Sue Ryder. We have free online counselling, and we have a community, there’s Cruse as well, they have free services for people. So, the signposting would enable people to identify free routes of support out there to support their employees.

Chau: If someone was off on long-term absence, so when Lucie discussed that before, and I think sometimes it's out of sight and out of mind. It's important to have those keeping in touch sessions with them, but also get them involved into the everyday aspects of the company as well. So, let them know what's happening as well. So, Andy, do you think that would still be important to still get that colleague involved within the organisation, even though they might not be working or absent during that period of time?

Andy: So this is all in negotiation with the colleague, and it's got to be right for them, and it's got to be right for their particular situation. The other thing we want to make sure we don't assume is that if a colleague has experienced a bereavement before, that they'll react in the same way, a second time, if they experience a second or subsequent bereavement. Every bereavement is different, because the circumstances are different. And our attachment and relationship with the person who's died is unique for each one. So, we have to bear that in mind. That all said, is if we keep that engagement at a level that is comfortable for the employee, and is possible for the employer, then that helps. And it builds something that we commonly refer to as social capital, which is the relationships that enable us to function in a part of society. And, you know, a part of society is a workplace isn't it?

So as anyone on here who is listening will know, is that the more and more you detach from somewhere and don't communicate, the more detached you feel. It's harder to go back. And it's harder also to make a connection to do the job that you would have been doing in the first place, had you not needed that time away. So also, it's harder to then re-establish those relationships if you haven't been in contact with people. Or, if you don't know, things like staff turnover, what new faces there are, what new projects are going on, a change in work environments, if you're working in something manually with other people – how is that all structured so, you work as a team? There are changes there.

It's important for people to know, because a return to work is going to be a vulnerable time anyway, for anyone. Coping with change on top of that, can additionally be a vulnerability. But, that can all be mitigated because with that keeping in touch, if it's negotiated well and people are equipped, that can really help them. And it can help someone build back into the workplace and continue and re-establish those relationships – relationships with other people, the employer and also their work.

Chau: That's a very interesting point. And I think from our discussion today, I've gained a lot more knowledge and also more insight about the situation regarding bereavement. And also, I think it's essentially breaking down those barriers and allowing people to be more open and honest about that situation as well. So, can I ask then is there one thing that you think that employers should consider or take going forwards if they are experiencing a bereavement at work?

Tracey: For me it's communication. It’s absolutely critical and to open it in a constructive, empathetic way that's exploring their needs in that immediate short-term, but to keep it going. I think there can be a propensity to be providing lots of support in the early days, but then it can fizzle out. Well actually, that's when it could get harder, an individual is feeling more isolated. And that's when I think the communication is even more powerful to provide them the support and explore how you can eventually get them back to work and have a supportive and empathetic environment for them.

Andy: So I would actually absolutely say communication again. I know people often say it’s communication, communication, communication. So, I'll repeat that. But there's something specific I'd want to point to, which is actually from an employer's point of view, there's no right words to say. What we're talking about here are principles aren’t they and best practice.

But if you feel unsure about what to say, and how to approach someone about a bereavement, you are not alone. And most of us find that a difficult conversation to have. It also means it's the right conversation, because it's a difficult situation for the person who's experienced the bereavement. So, the best thing is, is that if you're unsure, you feel there’s a barrier to communication, you can seek some advice.

Obviously, Sue Ryder has got lots of information, Acas has, Cruse has as well on the websites. You can contact us as well. But also, if you're not sure, then by all means, ask the person who's experienced the bereavement and say something like "Well, I'm not sure what to say here now, but I just want to say that we're here for you, we want to do our best to see you cared for and also in work as you would want". So, broaching that challenge is ok, because someone knows that you want to connect with them.

Lucie: Yes, communication, be led by the individual, signposting. I think, maybe think about training for your managers as well, to make sure that everybody feels equipped, as and when it might be needed. To have those empathetic conversations in confidence and feel able to then be able to use those skills to help plan as an employer. I think a lot of employers feel it's quite difficult to plan their workloads when they have people who are bereaved, who are off sick whether that’s short-term, long-term. But all of these tips, these communications being led by the individual, they will help the employer be able to plan because they are going to be able to connect with that individual, and understand what they need and when they need it, and be able to plan accordingly.

Chau: I think I must admit from this session today, I found it very insightful, but also very informative. And I think hopefully from our listeners today, they will get more of a better understanding of how to potentially approach bereavement at work and also how they can have a bit more confidence in dealing with the situation. Potentially, breaking down those barriers to talk more about death and bereavement and also grief at work as well. So, I would just like to end by saying thank you to everyone for joining me on today's session.

Tracey: Thank you.

Andy: Thank you.

Lucie: Thank you, Chau.

Chau: This has been the Acas Podcast. You can find out more information about handling a bereavement and supporting staff at work on our website at including research, guidance, blogs, and policy templates. All the links are included in the episode notes. Please get in touch if you require more specialists and individual support, as we have a fantastic range of expert advisers who can provide bespoke work to cater to your needs. Contact details and information for this service is also included in the episode notes. Thank you for listening.