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Three Ways To Support Bereaved Employees

Written by Mairi MacNaughton
07 June 2017

Three Ways To Support Bereaved Employees


It’s difficult to know what to say to someone who’s lost a loved one, especially if the loss was unexpected or the result of a terrible accident or attack.

So many of us are afraid to approach a person who has been bereaved. We don’t know what to say, so avoid talking to them or act like nothing’s happened, without realising how distressing this can be to the bereaved person.

When Sheryl Sandbury, LeanIn author and COO of Facebook, curled up for a nap and woke up to find her 47 year-old husband had unexpectedly died, her loss made global headlines. But it was the response of her colleagues when she returned to work 10 days later that really shocked her: “We sit at open desks and we share openly. It’s part of who we are,” she says, “But everyone looked at me like I was a ghost. No one would talk to me.”

It turned out they wanted to, they just didn’t know what to say. So what should you say to someone suffering the pain of having lost a loved one and how can you support someone experiencing grief, instead of making them feel isolated?

How to support someone experiencing bereavement

1. Acknowledge their loss

Ignoring the bereavement isolates the person feeling that huge pain and loss. It needs to be acknowledged and talked about. At the same time, this needs to be done in a discreet way as many people return to work too soon, hoping to use work as a distraction and to avoid thinking about painful feelings. A simple but heartfelt, “I was very sorry to hear of your loss. If there’s anything I can do for you please let me know,” will go a long way towards making the person feel emotionally supported. Yes, showing compassion might make them cry a bit, but they’ll feel better for knowing someone is aware of what they’re going through.

Instead of just sending an email, or text, this should be done face-to-face, at an appropriate time or place. It can also be helpful for colleagues to handwrite notes of condolence, to be sent to the person before they return to work. However, this mustn’t be used to substitute acknowledging their loss or offering an expression of sympathy once they return.

In Sandburg’s case, she found it helpful to have a totally open discussion with her colleagues: “Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why - they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say? I realised that to restore that closeness with my colleagues, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt. One colleague admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralysed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing.”

Acknowledging the grief isn’t the same as trying to understand it. Each person’s grief is unique to them and no one should attempt to tell them how or when they should get over it or how they should be feeling. They should instead be encouraged to feel safe grieving in their own way, be that feeling intense feelings of sadness or anger to gently allowing themselves to find moments of joy, without guilt, when they’re ready.

2. Establish how you can help in advance

Whenever seeking to support someone who has been bereaved, it’s always useful for their manager, or someone from HR, to meet with them before they return to work to agree a code or ‘boundaries’. The grief process is very unique to each individual. If they’ve already been bereaved they might already be aware of how they handle this process and what would or wouldn’t be helpful for them.

If they haven’t yet been bereaved and find that, on their first day back, all they can do is sit in front of a computer screen and feel nothing, it’s good for them to know that this is a perfectly normal response and to be expected. If they’re in a customer-facing role, they might feel fine one moment, then find that something triggers them to be overcome with a wave of grief, such as the customer having the same name as the person they lost.

It can be very useful to for them to think about what their grief process might look like in advance, reassure them that no one is expecting them to be ‘normal’ anytime soon. Some people may be forever changed by an intense bereavement and unable to go back to how they were. So it might be helpful for them to understand what a new ‘normal’ might look like. As they go through the process of coming to terms with their grief, think about what measures you might be able to put in place to support them if they start to feel overwhelmed. For example, access to a private room where they can go if things start to get to much, or buddying them up with a colleague who can quickly take over with a customer if something triggers them into needing a moment.

If they don’t already have a network of support in place, they should be encouraged to speak to their GP, family and friends or call the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Plus encouraged to look after their physical health, mind and body are connected, so if they’re eating well, taking proper breaks and getting enough sleep this will help to boost their emotional stamina. Of course, while they’re distracted with grief, they might not be so good at looking after themselves, so it’s important for their managers and colleagues to nudge them to eat lunch and go home on time. As well as think about hobbies or projects at work that will help them to connect with others and get back into a routine.

3. Keep checking in with them

Grief happens in waves. One day a bereaved individual might be able to compartmentalise what has happened to them and use work as a welcome distraction to function as normal. At other times, events such as the anniversary of the person’s death, a family member’s birthday, the run up to Christmas or an important court case related to their loved one’s death, can prove overwhelming triggers for grief. It’s important for managers and colleagues to remain mindful of the person’s loss and make a mental note of days that might prove difficult for them. For example, if they lost their partner, but still managed to come to a work party where partners were invited, it’s would be good to show some compassion, perhaps by saying: “It’s lovely you’re here, I know how difficult this must be.”

If they were able to suppress their grief at the beginning, by distracting themselves, they might only start to really experience their grief at a later date. Encourage their manager to keep a close eye on them and remind them of any support services in place, such as a counsellor at the end of an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), HR, OH, their GP or a charity helpline

It’s also important to note that bereavement isn’t a medical condition that can be ‘treated’. Instead, the individual needs to move through the classic stages of grief, with appropriate support at each stage:

Denial –“This can’t be happening.”

Anger – “Why did this have to happen?”

Bargaining – “If only I hadn’t done this or said that.”

Depression – “What’s the point of anything?”

Acceptance – “This is what my life looks like now.”

These stages are not linear steps on some timeline, but phases that each individual will need to come to terms with in their own time, with the caring support of their workplace, manager and colleagues.

If the individual is struggling to pass through these stages and becomes stuck in anger or depression, or turns to alcohol or drugs to numb their feelings, their employer has a duty of care to direct them towards appropriate support, such as the 24 hour confidential helplines associated with an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), whereby they can get immediate access to a professionally trained counsellor or psychotherapist, instead of having to wait six to eight weeks to get this support via the NHS.

Managers can also use the helpline to get advice and support on how best to support the employee, including the opportunity to role play difficult conversations and get feedback and insights on the best way to approach phasing their return in a way that works for both them and the organisation.

For more information about how to help a grieving employee, please call us on 01494 685200 or email [email protected]