Supporting an employee after a death
As an employer, you should take into account that everyone experiences grief differently, and each employee's needs will be different.
Some employees might need support soon after the death and also after they return to work, for example on the anniversary of the death or if there's an inquest into the death. You should tailor your support to each individual person's needs.
Supporting an employee after a death can help:
- them feel valued
- reduce their stress or anxiety
- avoid or reduce sick leave
- keep a good working relationship
- keep the workplace productive
It's important to communicate with your employee to ask what support they need from you, and also to let them know what support you can offer.
For example, some employees will have a network of family and friends supporting them through the death. You should bear this in mind when considering the support you give them.
When an employee tells you about the death
When an employee tells you about the death, it's good practice to:
- offer your condolences
- assure them they do not need to come to work if they do not want to, and make it clear that work should come second
- ask how they'd like to keep in touch, for example by phone or email
- ask if there's any important work they need someone else to cover, if appropriate
If someone is upset they might not be able to talk for long, or someone else might contact you on their behalf. If this happens, it can help to follow up with an email, or call them a few days later.
Communicating in a calm, empathetic way can help employees feel supported, and help ease their anxiety about work.
Cam's partner died suddenly of a heart attack on the day Cam was due to chair a meeting at work.
Cam contacted their line manager, Ashley, who quickly assured Cam they did not need to worry about work. Ashley checked if it was ok to tell other people at work about the death, and how Cam would like to keep in touch.
Over the next few days, Cam and Ashley spoke again over the phone. Ashley reassured Cam that their workload would be handled by other members of staff. Ashley and the team sent Cam a sympathy card. Cam and Ashley agreed to speak again after the funeral.
When they next spoke, Ashley confirmed how much paid bereavement leave Cam could take, and that there were other options if they needed more time off. Ashley also shared the details of counselling and other support available through work.
This helped reassure Cam, and helped Ashley check if Cam needed any support.
If they need time off
Check your organisation's bereavement policy to see how much leave your organisation can provide. Your bereavement policy should take into account that some staff may need to travel abroad at short notice and may need more time off.
If your organisation does not have a policy, it's good practice to talk to your employee and:
- check their legal right to time off during bereavement, for example parental bereavement leave
- consider their personal circumstances, including different religious and cultural practices
- look at what you've offered other bereaved employees, to make sure you're treating everyone fairly
- offer some paid time off for bereavement if possible (you might call this 'compassionate', 'bereavement' or 'special' leave)
- talk about using sick leave, holiday or unpaid leave to cover their time off, if you're unable to offer other paid leave for bereavement
- ask if they need other support
It's a good idea to have a bereavement policy if you do not have one.
Keeping in touch while an employee is off
In the first few days after a death it's important to communicate with the employee.
When you get in touch, it's good practice to ask:
- how they are
- how they'd like to be in contact while they're off, for example by phone or email, and how often
- if they want you to let others know about the death
- if they want to be contacted by others from work, for example to offer their support or condolences
- if they need any information or support from you, and signpost to any support that's available to them
- if they've thought about returning to work, if appropriate
Be careful not to pressure them into making any decisions before they're ready.
It can also help to train managers in how to have good, empathetic conversations with employees so they build confidence when dealing with a bereavement.
Returning to work
It's usually not appropriate to talk about returning to work in the first days of bereavement.
Keeping in touch can allow you to have an open discussion about:
- how the employee is coping
- when they might be ready to return to work
- your organisation's policy on bereavement
- any adjustments that might help with their return, for example a phased return or a temporary change in duties
- what support would be most helpful to them, for example access to an employee assistance programme (EAP) or workplace counselling if available
- any changes at work they might want to know about, for example a bereaved parent might want to know in advance if someone else at work has become pregnant while they've been off
How quickly someone returns to work will be different for everyone. Someone might be unsure or not be able to judge how they'll feel when they return.
Keeping in touch and talking about adjustments can help plan their return. For example, discussing whether the employee would prefer a phased return. You could also suggest arranging an informal meeting for coffee or lunch to help reduce anxiety around seeing everyone for the first time on their first day back at work.
It's important to make sure everyone at work respects the employee's wishes on whether they want to discuss what has happened or not. If they want, when they return to work it could help to have a catch-up with them to offer support and to check in on how they're doing.
Nico works in a grocery shop. His twin brother died 8 months ago. After taking time off for the funeral, Nico felt ok to work again. He agreed with his manager, Stef, that a phased return would help him feel more confident about returning to work. Nico returned to work on a part-time basis and after a few months returned to work full time.
Recently Nico has started to find things more difficult. Stef notices Nico is making mistakes at work. So Stef chats to Nico informally about how he's coping.
Nico explains it's his birthday the following week, and it will be the first one without his twin. Nico asks for the day off. Stef explains that because it's a Saturday, the busiest day for the shop, it might not be possible but they'll look into it.
When Stef looks at the rota, they're able to rearrange the shifts so Nico can take Saturday off. Talking together about the shift change, they also agree that Nico will swap to stockroom duties for the next 10 days to take a break from serving customers. This helps Nico get through his birthday, and makes him feel more confident to talk to Stef about any problems in future.
Once an employee returns to work, you should continue to tailor your support to meet their needs. It's important for employers to recognise that grief affects everyone differently. There is no right or wrong way to grieve and it is not a linear process – it can affect people at different times following a death.
An employee might need extra support or time off following a death. For example, because of:
- grief symptoms affecting their performance, for example not being able to sleep, think or concentrate
- depression or another mental health condition
- extra responsibilities, for example helping a dependant
How your organisation deals with requests for extra support or time off depends on its bereavement or absence policies.
Even if you do not have a policy, you must follow the law by:
- not discriminating, for example if the employee's mental health condition is classed as a disability
- making 'reasonable adjustments' to support an employee who has a disability
You should talk to the employee and discuss what's best for your employee's physical and mental health in the long term.
Doing things proactively can help prevent problems. For example:
- encouraging an open and supportive working environment for everyone
- signposting staff to your organisation's employee assistance programme (EAP), if there's one available
- sharing other support that's available outside your organisation, for example Cruse Bereavement Support
It's also likely the employee will be more productive if they feel they're getting the right support.
Grief is a natural response people have to death and is not a mental health issue. However if someone's grief becomes complex, or they are unable to grieve, this may cause them to experience mental ill health. This can include anxiety and depression.
If someone has a mental health issue after a bereavement, it's a good idea to talk to them to find out what support they might need at work.
Mental health and disability
Some people with a mental health condition might be classed as having a disability under the law. You should make sure you:
- do not discriminate against someone with a disability
- make 'reasonable adjustments' for an employee who has a disability
In most situations, it's best to look at how someone's condition or impairment affects them, rather than what the condition or impairment is.
More advice and support
You can get more advice and support from:
- Bliss for support and information for parents with a baby in neonatal care
- Cruse Bereavement Support on handling bereavement, including training for employers
- Dying Matters on talking about dying, death and bereavement
- Mind on supporting someone's mental health
- Miscarriage Association for miscarriage support and advice
- Sands for support following the death of a baby before, during or shortly after birth
- Sue Ryder on supporting staff after a death