Supporting a
grieving employee


Grief can be a difficult subject to raise; HR Grapevine spoke to the experts to find out what are the best policies to implement to help during this difficult period...

Words by Jade Burke | Design by Matt Bonnar

 

Grief can take many forms, whether it is the death of a loved one or pet, a relationship break-up or divorce, a traumatic family incident or financial loss, each individual handles their grief in very different ways – and it doesn’t turn off just because they’re at work.

In fact, some may take solace in work - finding comfort in the daily routine their job brings when going through a period of trauma. This is something Dr. Nick Taylor, Co-Founder of workplace mental health platform Unmind points to.

“A bereavement can shatter a person’s home and family life so work can become elevated into an important position, offering necessary routine and stability,” he explains. “During a time of grief, a fulfilling job role can also bring meaning and purpose and so it’s important that employers are aware of their role in an employee's wider ecosystem.”

Howeverm, it is likely that extra support for the grieving employee will be needed; whether it is extra bereavement leave, counselling, or flexible working opportunities. However, recent research from funeral directors CPJ Field found that only 43% of organisations had a bereavement policy. In addition, just 15% of bereaved employees were offered extra support from their team when needed and only eight per cent were given a break from customer-facing roles. As a result, over a third claimed they were more likely to quit after a significant bereavement.

What if an employee is grieving a pet?

Animals often play a key role in our lives just as much as friends and family do, and it seems more organisations are noticing how crucial animals are and have implemented policies for when an employee loses a pet. Mars which owns pet nutrition firm Mars Petcare currently offers a paid day off for those who lose a furry friend, while Kimpton Hotels offer up to three days for both salaried and hourly employees.

While this may be the case for staff within these organisations, earlier this year an employee grieving the loss of her pet dog was refused a day off work after she was told that “no bereavement time was allowed for pets”. Despite informing her boss she was too upset to come into work, she was fired and left unemployed the same day she lost her beloved dog. In contrast, Royal Mail Group’s Davis believes that compassion should be shown to every employee, no matter what the traumatic situation is.

“There was quite a divide on this story when it hit headlines. I have got a really close friend who has no children, but she has got a dog who she worships the ground it walks on and actually if anything happened to her, that grief of losing her dog would be very real,” Davis explains. “Therefore, I would like to think I would treat someone as compassionately if they lost a family member or anything that was close to them that matters to them. If it matters to them, it should matter to me, that would be my view.”

 

‘Duty of care’

This is not a good state of affairs and employers have to do more. Donna Miller, European HR Director of rent-a-car business Enterprise Holdings, notes that all employers have a ‘duty of care’. “Employers have a duty of care to their employees and supporting bereavement needs to be a part of that overall responsibility,” she says. “Employees need to understand the parameters and the support they can get through bereavement, as well as what to do if they need more help.”

Open communication

Unmind’s Taylor adds that communication is an “important part of the process” when it comes to bereavement, so employees don’t feel like they’ve been shot down or ignored. “Line managers can play an important part in the process as they may be the first ones to spot that someone is going through a difficult time and can, in turn, signpost support or offer to adjust an employee’s workflow,” he explains.

“Open communication is vital in changing the culture of a workplace and ensuring that people feel they can speak up without the fear of being judged or criticised. That being said, line managers and middle management should feel supported and equipped to have such conversations with their colleagues specifically around difficult topics such as grieving considering that all employees will experience this at some point.”

Three companies offering bereavement policies


Twitter


According to a 2015 Forbes article, employees based in the San Francisco Twitter offices are provided with unlimited time off in addition to ten company holidays. The social media behemoth doesn’t track how many days its staff take; however, these unlimited days can be used for any type of bereavement an employee may need.

Molson Coors


The brewing business offers its employees a policy called ‘Life Leave’ which allows up to two weeks extra paid leave annually. In addition, several services are available for each staff member who is suffering with grief. Adam Firby, HR Director at Molson Coors, told HR Grapevine: “Over and above HR, all our employees have access to in-house counselling services, should they ever need it, and we have dedicated mental health champions throughout our business, who help employees manage any stress and lend a supportive hand.”

Facebook


In a similar fashion, in 2017 Facebook doubled its bereavement leave allowance. Workers are now allowed to take up to 20 days of paid leave following the death of an immediate family member. Meanwhile, those mourning the loss of an extended family member will be provided with ten days paid leave. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, took to the social media platform to share the news, drawing on her own experience with grief after she lost her husband in May 2015.

Comforting culture

It’s not just line managers who should be open to speaking about traumatic instances. By actively promoting a culture where subjects such as bereavement are not ignored, individuals know that their grief will be taken seriously, and workplace support exists. Dr Shaun Davis, Global Director of Safety, Health, Wellbeing & Sustainability at postal service Royal Mail Group advocates this approach.

“A lot of support comes through colleagues,” Davis continues. “I think you have to have that soft and hard aspect. By soft I mean creating a culture and environment where people support one another and then the harder side of it is things like employee assistance programmes and the understanding of line managers.”

What does the law say?

Presently, there isn’t a law in place to protect an employee’s right to bereavement leave. The Employment Rights Act 1996 dictates that employees have the right to take time off to deal with an emergency situation, such as the death of a dependent, however there isn’t any statutory right to paid bereavement leave. This suggests that the onus falls on the employer as to whether they should pay staff members during a personal crisis.

This is where the introduction of a bereavement policy could help to manage the situation. Grief is very personal and thus employees may be less likely to reach out for help directly to their peers or line manager. However, with a bereavement policy to turn to, staff members might feel more confident in knowing whether they will receive bereavement leave and if they can take time off and will be paid.

This view is supported by Enterprises’ Miller who continues: “Employers need to support their employees through all their life stages and bereavement is one of them. There needs to be a plan or policy to deal with this, which needs to be transparent and clearly communicated so employees know what help they can get, even where it is not a legal requirement.”

 

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