Talking about death is still an uncomfortable discussion, especially in the workplace. Read our article detailing how you can break this process down into steps and provide support for your employees.
Bereavement. Passed away. Deceased. No longer with us.
All of these are terms often used to refer to death and there’s a whole ream we could also use. But it is often still seen as a taboo subject, or a topic which is too difficult to talk about openly, especially in the workplace.
Employees could be faced with the passing of a colleague, family member, friend or someone they provided care for. It may be from a long-term illness, Covid-19 or perhaps a sudden and unexpected death. Coming to terms with bereavement encompasses emotional, physical and practical consequences for those left behind, especially in the workplace.
It’s easy to think that work is just work, but we spend the majority of our time with the people who make up the organisation. It’s fair to say that they can feel like a second family and therefore, it should come as no surprise that losing a valued colleague can have the same impact as losing a friend or family member.
As a manager or business owner, you’ll probably be faced with thoughts such as, how do you support your employees? What does your bereavement policy encompass? Do you offer unpaid leave? Adjustments to their working schedule?
If your workplace has been impacted, do you contact the deceased colleague’s family? Attend the funeral? And also, do you look to fill their job function or divide their role amongst the team? You’ll have to deal with questions that are ‘unsavoury’ but necessary in order to keep the business moving forward. But where do you start and how can you move your organisation and those who are grieving forward?
Acknowledging the loss
Firstly, speak with your employee or the employee’s family who are dealing with this grief. Afterwards it may be apt to send a card, flowers or a donation on behalf of the business to a cause or charity that is appropriate. Find out what they are happy for you to communicate to the wider business – they may not want the full details to be shared within the organisation.
If a colleague has passed, then perhaps one of the hardest aspects will be to let your team know. Team members will undoubtedly react differently, and these reactions may be influenced by a wide range of issue. For example:
- their relationship with the deceased colleague
- their relationship with the deceased family and friends
- the circumstances of the death
- their previous experiences of death and bereavement
- their religious and cultural beliefs and norms
- recent issue impacting on their personal lives
You will know which type of communication will be best for your organisation – whether that’s addressing your team as a whole, speaking with them individually or via virtual call. Perhaps even phoning them in the evening and letting them work from home the next day. Whichever communication route you go down, ensure that they are told quickly to prevent second-hand news spreading throughout the office.
Also, do you need to let customers know? Needless to say, that this should be done after internal communication and in a co-ordinated approach.
Time to digest the news
In the aftermath of a loss, your team will need support and a path forward. For starters, ask the family if they are ok for colleagues to attend the funeral and if so, open this invite to the team. Show the value they had within your organisation and team.
If a teammate is on bereavement leave or are currently dealing with a loss, communicate this to the wider team. However, communication should be agreed between the employee and manager to ensure they are comfortable with what the team are being told.
Colleagues may not want to upset the rest of the team or want to portray a strong image that they are coping just fine, but reactions can present themselves in a variety of ways. They could be hiding their feelings as they adjust to the loss.
If employees are unable to address their feelings of grief, then this could impact their individual and team abilities. The emotional toll of losing someone will affect people differently – whether that’s through anger, relief, guilt or depression. Ensuring that you have a process in place with appropriate support can facilitate recovery.
Be cautious – if they don’t want counselling services now then they may do in a few months’ time. Don’t rush it and don’t track their progress – everyone will mourn differently. Provide them with time and space to navigate this news and healing period.
Do you need to look at additional counselling services? Do your staff know how to access counselling through their EAPs (if applicable)?
They may need some time off to deal with this news – have you thought about the process for this and how to re-distribute their workload if they need space? If they’re adjusting to the loss of caring responsibilities, then staying involved with the team will provide them with a space to feel valued and part of the day – they may be missing the responsibilities they no longer carry.
Remember, leave due to bereavement isn’t a lawful requirement but often, businesses will have their own procedures and measures in place for allowing time off (say, your employee handbook). Ensure that you have you processes published within an accessible medium so that your employees will know what they are entitled to. You may even have a flexible approach to decide on an appropriate course of action dependent on each circumstance.
“At Reframe we don’t specify a specific number of days but what we aim for is to agree an approach that is right for the specific circumstances,”
Andrew Gueterbock, Chief Operating Officer, Reframe
The cause or circumstance surrounding this situation may spark memories or feelings amongst the remaining team about other bereavements they have dealt with. Let them know that emotional support is open for all cases of grief and is not stipulated to solely dealing with workplace bereavement. You could enhance your bereavement leave to include carers, whether that looks like paid leave for 1 day or 1 week, depending on circumstances.
Do, or could, you offer death in service as part of your employee benefits package? If so, how quickly can this be turned around if they need help paying for the funeral? Alternatively, can you offer to fund a certain amount towards funeral costs as a gift on behalf of the organisation?
If you’re unable to offer paid leave, then you could be flexible with unpaid leave. For carers, they may have practical arrangements to make, such as registering the death, arranging the funeral and dealing with their personal effects and affairs.
A common outlook may be that life has to go on and that jobs still need to be done and inevitably, when a member of staff dies there are some practical and pragmatic things that have to be done to support business continuity. For example, there could be a business need to clear the deceased persons desk, lorry, office or locker. The pace at which these need to be undertaken will depend upon the needs of the company.
“Doing any of these things will be emotionally distressing and uncomfortable for the manager and work colleagues. It is imperative these and other tasks are completed respectfully and sensitively. This is crucial. If these are not managed well it could be one of those things’ employees remember for a long time, causing tensions in the team if poorly managed.
Responding to different employees’ needs will be tough. This is probably best managed by taking the time to explain what and why certain things need to be done. Deciding how these are done is probably best decided by involving employees in these decisions, so that they are part of creating the solution. When and where they may want to have a role in this. A colleague may wish to accompany a team member to clear a desk, locker or lorry. Talking and involving employees will also help the manager understand how the team is managing the loss of a colleague and better understand what issues the company need to be mindful of in forthcoming weeks and months. Difficult conversations are never easy to have but experience tells us that by being empathetic, considerate, compassionate, open and honest is more likely to result in employees engaging and respecting decisions made.”
Deborah Critchley, Clinical Adviser, Reframe
How you choose to handle and communicate bereavement will largely depend upon your culture. By and large, having a process, communication templates and a compassionate leave policy in place will enable you to act quickly and decisively should you find yourself in this situation.
There is no definitive guide for how you should broach a workplace bereavement but having a plan which you can tailor to individuals’ circumstances will help prepare you for the conversations and practical matters you will need to navigate.