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What to do when faced with a bereaved team member

Karen Higginbottom

When someone in your team is dealing with the death of a family member it can be hard for managers to know how to help. Karen Higginbottom asks what you can do if an employee suffers a bereavement

Death is a difficult enough topic to discuss out of the workplace, but when an employee experiences a bereavement, it can be hard for their manager to know what to do.

“People are embarrassed and not sure what to say to someone who has experienced a bereavement,” says Iain Lauder, senior teaching fellow in organisational behaviour at Edinburgh Business School. “There is very little training out there to help managers cope with this type of situation.”

The death of a loved one is one of the most stressful experiences in life and individuals can bring that added stress into the workplace, with all its associated consequences, says Lauder. “People [affected by bereavement] can feel tired and may be more emotional in reacting to workplace conflict. At the psychological level, they are potentially working through grief, anger, guilt, anxiety or helplessness. At the behavioural level, the individual can become distracted from the work at hand and be prone to making more errors than usual.”

In large organisations there is usually some form of bereavement policy, explains Kevin Friery, clinical director at Right Core, an employee assistance provider. “Most organisations will have a compassionate leave policy that says following bereavement, you get a number of days of leave and this is scaled down depending on the closeness of the relationship.”

Show your support

The most important job for the manager is to be able to acknowledge the loss that the individual has suffered, advises Lauder. “This is important for the individual concerned but also because this can lead to a dialogue on how the immediate team can help.”

Once a manager has been notified that an employee has experienced bereavement, they need to contact their HR department first, recommends Friery. “You need to be very clear about what your organisation offers in terms of compassionate leave before your meeting with the individual concerned.”

Be willing to offer help and support within your managerial remit. This will include agreeing what information can be shared with colleagues and will certainly include agreeing how much compassionate leave will be taken and what additional annual leave the employee might wish to take.

The manager should find out what the bereaved employee wants during this meeting, recommends Friery. “Be willing to offer help and support within your managerial remit. This will include agreeing what information can be shared with colleagues and will certainly include agreeing how much compassionate leave will be taken and what additional annual leave the employee might wish to take.”

Friery warns that managers must avoid the pitfall of acting as a counsellor to a bereaved employee. “Their job is to manage the business effectively and it’s important that the manager does not get drawn into counselling the employee. Of course, a manager needs to be sympathetic and supportive but if that bereavement impacts on a person’s performance, you might have to do something.”

Once the bereaved employee decides to return to work, a manager should hold a return to work interview, says Friery. “The manager needs to agree with the bereaved employee about how they will monitor them and let them know what support is available to them such as counselling services. I’d normally recommend that someone have a gradual return to work if it was the death of close family.”

Keep your doors open

Judith Germain, managing director at leadership consultancy Dynamic Transitions, recommends that managers let the bereaved employee know that they are available if the individual needs to chat. “The manager needs to let the employee know they have an ‘open-door’ policy.”

Managers need to watch out for bereaved employees coming back to work too soon, warns Dr Nic Hammarling, partner at business psychologists Pearn Kandola. “The first stage of grief can be one of the trickiest ones to manage from a psychological point of view. It’s about getting the balance between is this person ready to come back to work and the fact that work can provide meaning in their lives and a sense of stability.”

A manager also needs to be mindful that an employee’s performance is not being negatively affected by grief, adds Hammarling. “It’s about just being mindful of the type of work they are being given and the stress levels they are under.”

But a manager’s job to support a bereaved member of staff doesn’t stop once they’ve used up their compassionate leave, argues Friery. “Bereavement is a process that can take many years. If during your follow-up monitoring, you become aware that the employee is showing no signs of the grief subsiding so that much of the time at work is either unproductive or the employee takes extended periods of sick leave, then be willing to make a referral to an occupational health professional, because at this stage some counselling or therapy may be required.”

The more that managers and organisations can do to help, the earlier the individual will return to being a productive employee, says Lauder. “It’s an issue of competitive advantage that organisations deal with these issues effectively.”

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