Bereavement can affect an employee in many ways, there’s no set pattern and no timeline with grief
Leaving your problems at home is almost impossible when it comes to grief. The past two years have brought grief to the fore for all of us and we’ve all been doing this mourning in the office, or at our kitchen tables on Zoom.
Many people have lost someone during the pandemic, whether it’s a loved one, a friend, or a neighbour.
Unfortunately, most employers aren’t prepared or equipped to manage any of this grief, or the stress, anxiety, burnout, and widespread lack of productivity that goes with it.
However, what the pandemic has brought is much more awareness from employers about providing a supportive environment for employees in need. When grief isn’t dealt with, it can cause a big issue within businesses.
According to a study in 2020 by charity Sue Ryder, bereavement in the workplace costs the UK economy nearly £23bn a year and makes an impact on public finances of around £8bn a year although those costs could be as high as £49bn and £18bn respectively.
Although many workplaces have some kind of bereavement leave in place, with the majority opting for a discretionary three-day leave period, in most instances it’s not a statutory requirement. However, for next of kin, the three days isn’t enough time to do very much - perhaps tell relatives, register the death, and book a funeral. But when you add in all the ‘death-min’ involved, and other complications, such as a post mortem, a coroner, probate, trying to access funds, and more, grief can really take its toll.
Leave isn’t the only issue. Bereavement can affect an employee in multiple ways with changes to their routine and life outside of the workplace. There’s no set pattern and no timeline with grief.
There’s also a physiological response to grief that employers, HR, and managers should understand. The human brain handles emotional trauma and stress using the same set of processes, ‘fight or flight.’ The brain’s default to survival and defence mechanisms increases blood pressure and heart rate, as well as releasing specific hormones.
Grief affects the brain and body in many different ways, including changes in memory, behaviour, sleep, and body function, and can also affect the immune system, as well as the heart. It can also lead to cognitive effects, such as brain fog.
For the employee, they might feel anxious about coming back to work after a bereavement. They may go through a lack of confidence, ask for more sick leave, and struggle to focus and meet deadlines, and perform as they used to.
The lack of productivity may go on for some time. The combination of lack of concentration and drop in productivity may result in an increase in accidents at work.
The impact of a bereaved employee’s ability to work effectively can impact other employees who may not know how to respond when a colleague returns to work. They may also begin to resent the work they might have to mop up as a consequence.
While grief may ebb and flow, significant dates, such as the first Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, etc are likely to reignite feelings of grief, and are just as likely to impact productivity.
What can you do as an employer?
If you address grief with employees, you are more likely to find they’re able to function again quicker. Ignoring grief and allowing them to grieve alone in the corner runs the risk of turning the whole situation into the ‘elephant in the room’.
They will no doubt feel unsupported and inevitably leave but probably after a lot of lost productivity and perhaps bad feeling, causing you another headache of paying out to recruit a replacement.
Be a patient observer
The return to work may not be straightforward. The employee might distract themselves by throwing their heart and soul into work. This might lead to burnout. They might be so distracted or overwhelmed, they can’t function.
Lower your expectations of what you think they can do. Share their work out, if you can. This isn’t always possible, for example giving a teacher additional breaks, but you can look at workload and who can cover if they do need a break.
Normalising conversations about wellbeing and support at work, rather than prioritising productivity over human experiences is a good place to start, and an even better approach is managers being proactive in addressing workload during obvious ‘bumps’ for employees going through grief.
Take the time to ask how your colleague is doing today, and then just listen. No interruptions, don’t tell them you understand, or know how they feel, or pass any kind of judgement. If they cry, that’s a normal reaction to loss and although it might feel uncomfortable, let it be ok with you.
When they’ve finished talking, ask them if they’d like a hug (if you’re close to them, or they’re a huggy person), or if they’d like to take a few minutes to have a breather and a cuppa.
Sometimes, people can need more support than a listening ear. Training a member of staff or a few on how to talk to people who are experiencing loss is a good start. You might have an EAP scheme in place that covers bereavement.
You could also signpost them to the Grief Specialists website where they will find free resources and professional support, with grief professionals like me who can help them through their grief journey.
Detola Amure is a Productivity & Women Leadership Transformational Coach. Detola is passionate about helping people recover from their emotional losses so that they can be better leaders and communicators. You can learn more about Detola here.