How to support employees through bereavement in challenging times

Bereavement is challenging at any time. Even with the support of friends, family and colleagues, many struggle to cope with both the emotional impact and the practical responsibilities.

How to support employees through bereavement in challenging times

The added challenges of isolation

In these days of Covid restrictions, the challenges of bereavement are multiplied. Not only are practical arrangements and legal obligations more difficult at arm’s length, but funerals – such an important part of the grieving process for many – are still restricted in terms of mourner numbers and venues. Meanwhile, much of the comfort people naturally seek from friends, family and colleagues can still only be done over the phone or on a video call, and with many employees still working from home or on furlough, work is not providing the solace of distraction.

Added to this is the anxiety about the threat of Covid and bereavement due to the virus. In a recent survey of Covid-bereaved respondents led by Dr Emily Harrop, Marie Curie Research Centre, Cardiff University, Dr Lucy Selman and University of Bristol, more than half said they found it hard to express their feelings and be understood by others, 53% expressed feelings of loneliness and social isolation, and 55% confessed to feelings of anxiety and depression.

Now, more than ever, employers need to think how they can support individuals affected by bereavement. Including bereavement support within the employee benefits portfolio is an excellent way for employers to indicate to their staff that the company cares about them. Many younger members of the team may not consider it to be of importance to them in the short term, but the loss of a parent or grandparent can be just as devastating as the loss of a partner. And with the mental health implications of lockdown and Covid restrictions, suicide rates are rising too, with implications for coping with traumatic bereavement scenarios.

With bereavement support in place, employers can direct members of their team to sources of practical and emotional support, which, from a commercial and operational perspective, will also help to protect the business from absence and performance issues linked to stress and poor mental health.

First steps of support

The way an employee feels about sharing their loss will depend on the company’s culture. In an environment where an employee feels valued, they are much more likely to be open about their bereavement and any associated challenges.

Once the bereaved employee has shared the news of their loss, the most important first step for any colleague or manager is to listen. Every individual experiences grief differently; some may simply want to articulate their situation while managing quite well; others may show signs of struggling to cope. Wherever the employee may be on the spectrum of coping or struggling, signposting them to sources of help will ensure they know the company cares and enable them to seek support if they need it.

It is also advisable to alert others in the company to the employee’s situation and the potential for them to need time off, reduced pressure or some flexibility. However, it’s important to inform the bereaved employee before sharing any information given in confidence, even if this is with a line manager or HR department.

The safety net of a benefits package

The advantage of a bereavement benefits package is that it allows an employer to support employees through their bereavement without the need for the employee to articulate a challenging topic in their work environment. It can be very hard for an employee to appear vulnerable or openly emotional and a bereavement benefits package creates a short cut to accessing the help they need.

Bereavement benefits could include a helpline for practical support, be extended to offer online chat with a trained advisor or include support services and bereavement counselling. Packages can also be tailored to include a will-writing service, which is an excellent way to introduce the topic of loss while providing employees with a tangible benefit that safeguards their families.

The isolation felt by many during the pandemic has reinforced the human need for empathy and caring. That need is amplified following a bereavement and companies that build a caring approach into their culture are most able to support their team during challenging times.

The author is Jean Watkins, bereavement manager at the National Bereavement Service.

This article is provided by the National Bereavement Service.

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