Employee wellbeing | How employers can support employees after a bereavement

How employers can support employees after a bereavement

By Kay Needle, Early Intervention and Rehabilitation Expert at Generali UK Employee Benefits

Grief following the death of a loved one can be overwhelming. Well-meaning employers want to do their best to support employees after a bereavement. But, in our experience with group risk clients, this can sometimes translate into putting employees on sick leave – inadvertently medicalising bereavement – and/or signposting to talking therapies immediately after being notified of a bereavement. This might not be the most appropriate time.

In this article, we consider: the stages of grief; when employers should signpost to support; and what support is available via Group Income Protection and Group Life.

Stages of grief

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first discussed her theory of the five stages of grief, also known as the ‘Kübler-Ross model’ in her book On Death and Dying (1969). They include:

  • Denial – refusal to accept the reality of the situation. This is different to not understanding.

  • Anger – when the reality of a death is accepted, but anger sets in, directed toward oneself, family members, doctors, or even the deceased.

  • Bargaining – a feeling of hopelessness, when it’s common to be overcome by thoughts of “what if” and “if only”. At this time, we might ‘try to make agreements with ourselves, or a deal with a higher power, in exchange for feeling less sad or having a different outcome. Bargaining is often irrational’ (Harvard Health Publishing, Dec 2023)

  • Depression – a feeling of extreme sadness and hopelessness. Also, importantly, a natural reaction to grief.

  • Acceptance – a coming to terms with the loss; accepting its reality. At this stage, the bereaved individual can focus their energy, less on struggling with grief, and more on celebrating a life, cherishing memories and moving forward.

Unlike first thought, these stages are not in any specific order, not everyone who grieves experiences all the stages, and some might experience none. But it’s generally accepted that these five stages are the most readily observed in the grieving population.

When should employers signpost to support?

In the first two weeks after a bereavement, the individual could be in shock and might be experiencing a sense of disconnection from reality, according to our expert colleagues at global EAP provider TELUS Health.

Also, during this time, they might have to focus on the practicalities, such as funeral arrangements and they’re usually supported by friends and family throughout this time.

According to TELUS Health, support at this stage may include psychoeducation regarding the grieving process and what feelings and emotions to expect. But it is usually too soon to start bereavement work. They add that it can be helpful to encourage the bereaved individual to keep connected with friends and family, and not feel grief is an illness that needs an urgent fix.

However, support calls may be useful in these early stages to allow the individual to discuss how they are feeling and any practical challenges they may be facing. For example, reintegration back to work, and focusing on self-care.

When and if bereavement counselling should be explored depends on the individual’s grief journey.

After the funeral, the support from friends and family might start lessening, along with the urgency to make practical arrangements. At this time, the individual may also be returning to work. This is when emotions can rise and the individual starts to work through the pain of grief. Reaching this stage can take anything from two weeks onwards. At this stage, some bereavement counselling might be suitable. It’s important to be guided by the individual, not by standard policy or protocol.

What support is available via Group Income Protection and Group Life?

This varies from provider to provider. Generali’s Group Life Assurance policy includes free access for all insured members and their families to a bereavement counselling service and probate helpline, provided by TELUS Health.

Bereavement counselling allows the individual to explore the loss, their feelings, emotions and how they may try and adjust to life without their loved one.

The number of sessions can vary depending on a number of factors. For example: how the person died; the relationship between the deceased and the bereaved individual; current social support; and the individual’s own coping style. A lot of support and work can be achieved within a short-term solution focused model.

Our Group Income Protection policy offers access to Vocational Rehabilitation* which can support individuals to consider how they will prepare for and return to work, if they have not done so following an appropriate period of compassionate leave and their absence is at risk of becoming medical.

Paula Allen, Global Leader and Senior Vice President, Research and Client Insights for TELUS Health, said:

“Bereavement can be an incredibly challenging life moment and, like so many traumas, is something that needs addressing and the support of an employer. When you suffer bereavement, it can change the way you interact with the world over a period of weeks and months and affect your perceptions of yourself. It is easy to dismiss bereavement as a fact of life, but it can have profound short- and long-term impacts to a person’s wellbeing and sense of self.

“It is perhaps most important that employers are attentive to colleagues if they know they have suffered a bereavement and be alert to a change in behaviour; don’t judge it, but show the person love. Saying ‘I see you, I care, I’m available and we have services that can help you’ may feel like the hardest first step, but it can go a long way in making sure a colleague feels supported.

“People going through trauma may feel vulnerable or be in emotional upheaval, and other areas of their life may be neglected and begin to suffer. Providing holistic support for the individual is therefore important. Mental health support is life skills support as well; it's not just the clinical intervention.

“As we all know, there are many stages to grief and no ‘one size fits all’ approach for how to handle the emotions that come with a bereavement. This makes it all the more important that managers are sensitive and trained in how best to support staff through difficult periods, knowing when to apply a light tough approach and when to escalate.”

*Vocational Rehabilitation is available following a discussion with Generali to assess suitability and eligibility of the individual

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All information contained herein represents the views and opinions of the author as at the date of writing and is provided for general information only. Nothing herein constitutes or is intended to constitute financial or other form of advice and no individual should rely upon the information provided in making a specific investment decision without first seeking independent professional advice.

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