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How to support a bereaved colleague at work

Understanding the impact of grief on employees and getting a good bereavement policy in place

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Common myths about griefHow to support an employee through bereavementHow to support your team through a bereavement in the companyWhat your bereavement policy should cover

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When a member of your team tells you that someone close to them has died, it can feel like a big responsibility as a manager. To react in the right way. To get all the work bits in the right order. To know what to say. 

Nearly a quarter of working-age adults have experienced bereavement over the last year. Often, our awkwardness and embarrassment around death only make us shy away from the person who’s grieving, and that leaves everyone feeling a little worse in a sad situation. 

Unfortunately, there is no Bereavement 101. While your colleague could handle loss in countless different ways, you can equip yourself (and your company) with the tools to respond consistently to the situation with compassion and support. 

But before we think about practical ways to help employees through bereavement at work, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of someone who’s experienced a loss.

Common myths about processing grief

Grief is horrible, painful, and completely individual. No matter the person’s relation to the person who’s died, any bereavement can bring about intense thoughts, feelings and behaviours that may seem frightening and uncontrollable, but are in fact surprisingly common.

Misconceptions around how grief feels – and how people process grief – can be unhelpful. They set up false expectations about how we should react to a loss, which can make us feel even more isolated and low. 

Compiled with the help of Spill's Clinical Advisor and information from the Chordoma Foundation

Surprising thoughts, feelings and behaviours that can accompany grief

We expect to cry and be sad, but there are many other – completely normal – reactions that come with a loss. There is no right or wrong way to feel. 

👉 Numbness: Feeling as though you’re on auto-pilot. You may feel dazed and numb, and may have nightmares. These are normal experiences of shock. You may feel disorientated and out of touch with the world around you.

👉 Anger: Towards yourself, towards others, towards the world. You may be angry that this has happened to someone you care about or angry with your own feeling of helplessness. It is also not uncommon for people to feel anger towards the person who died.

👉 Regret and guilt: Don't be alarmed if you experience a running commentary of all the things you wish you had/hadn’t done.

👉 Fear and anxiety: You may start to worry about the health and welfare of yourself and others. It’s also not uncommon for people to feel anxious or frightened without knowing precisely what they’re worrying about.

👉 Physical reactions: You may feel pain in your stomach or chest, have more frequent colds and viruses, feel lethargic, or have a change in eating or sleeping patterns.

👉 Strange hope: At times you may feel as if the loss will change, or is not permanent.

👉 Outbursts: Sudden tearfulness even though you were fine the moment before, or sudden anger over an insensitive comment.

👉 Forgetfulness: Forgetting simple things (that you wouldn't usually forget), from phone numbers to where you put today’s post.

👉 Relief: This is especially common if you had a difficult relationship, or you were responsible for someone’s care before they died. Alternating between complex feelings of relief and guilt can be especially exhausting.

👉 Feeling worse as time goes on: The full effects of grief may not hit until some time later. It can be an unwelcome surprise to find that you feel worse after two months than you felt after two weeks.

Although possibly disturbing, all of these responses, and many more, are normal reactions to grief. 

And if we put our manager’s hats back on, it’s no surprise that these feelings and behaviours can affect someone’s work for a long time after the death of someone they know. Grief can impact your colleague’s mental health, sleep, appetite, confidence, productivity and ability to concentrate. 

An impact on their performance is almost inevitable, but offering the right support in the first instance can go a long way to helping them to regain a sense of normality and purpose later down the line.

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How to support an employee through bereavement

The way your company handles bereavement is something that your colleague will remember for a really long time. We’ll look at ways you can respond empathetically in three key stages:

  • When an employee first reports a bereavement
  • While they’re on leave
  • When they come back to work

When an employee tells you someone’s died

This might be a short conversation directly with your colleague, or with someone in their family. The two most important things to get across at this stage are:

  • Letting them know that you’re sorry for their loss
  • Reassuring them that you’re not expecting them at work, unless for whatever reason they’d like to be there

There are a few things that’d be good for you to know, too. You could clarify these at the same time if it feels right, or follow up a couple of days later – email is usually better than phoning, so your employee can respond in their own time. 

  • Ask them whether they’d like to take any extended leave from work, and let them know what they’re entitled to. This may be paid or unpaid leave, according to your company’s bereavement policy.
  • Check how they’d like to keep in touch, and how often.
  • See whether they’re comfortable with you telling the wider team about their bereavement. Some people would rather their absence is communicated as a family emergency; others might appreciate words of condolences from their colleagues. 
  • If you don’t have full visibility of their workload, you could check whether there are any tasks that you should hand over to another member of the team while they’re away. Only do this if you feel like it’ll relieve some stress or worry about returning to work. 

If you don’t get a response, try not to chase them. For most people, work will not be on their radar.

While an employee is on bereavement leave

They’re likely to be very preoccupied, practically and emotionally. Be respectful with the amount of contact you have, and remember to take any cultural or religious traditions relating to death or mourning into account. 

  • Send a card or gift to their home, if you think it’s appropriate. 
  • You could let them know about any mental health support that’s available through your company, or any practical bereavement support that’s offered by your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Include links to access these resources directly, if you can – nobody wants to sift around for employee numbers or logins while they’re grieving. 
  • Towards the end of their leave, arrange a meeting to talk about how they’d like to return to work. A phased return might be appropriate if it’ll stop them feeling overwhelmed. 
  • You need to be clear about any repercussions a phased return or a shift to part time work would have on their pay. Bear in mind that their financial situation may have changed, particularly if it’s a partner who’s died, or they’ve had to fund a funeral unexpectedly.  

When an employee comes back to work after a bereavement 

Try and predict which aspects of work could be difficult for your employee. Even the smallest gestures might be appreciated – from meeting them outside the office on their first morning back, to moving that big team catch-up online. 

  • Acknowledge their bereavement. This one’s easy to forget about or sidestep around but it’s an important step before you start discussing practical job stuff. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who’s died or use their name if your employee brings them up. 
  • Consider adjusting your employee’s performance metrics for a while. On average, the productivity of someone who’s experienced intense grief remains at 70% of their normal capacity for the first 6 months. You may need to bring in some extra help for the rest of the team in the meantime. 
  • Add regular catch ups to the diary. Make sure your colleague knows that your door is open if any issues come up or they start finding work much harder than usual. Remember to act as a glorious signpost for your team’s mental health resources. 
  • Asking “How are you doing today?” or "What sort of day are you having today?" can feel much easier to answer than a broad “How are you?” 
  • Offer more flexibility around their working day, if you can. Working different shifts or working from home occasionally could help someone to manage if their responsibilities have changed significantly after a loss. Having the flexibility to spend an hour here or there dealing with practical matters or attending counselling sessions could make a big difference to their overall wellbeing, too.  
  • A person who’s experiencing grief often has a lot of support immediately after their loss, but it’s important to remember that just because someone’s back at work, doesn’t mean their grieving is over. Often grief will sink in right when everyone else’s life is ‘back to normal’. Anniversaries and birthdays can be especially difficult, and your employee may appreciate a bit of extra support around those times.

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How to support your team through a bereavement in the company

We’re sorry if this has happened to you. Losing someone you work with can have a huge emotional impact on you and your whole team. As a manager, it’s important to look after your own mental health, as well as the wellbeing of your immediate reports. 

  • Communicate the news about someone’s death as sensitively as you can. It might be better to do this in a meeting where you can outline relevant support resources at the same time. 
  • Give time off immediately after the announcement and allow time for anyone in the team to attend the funeral, if appropriate. Some colleagues may request bereavement leave and a phased return to work, depending on your company’s policy. 
  • Ask the family about the best way to remember the person who’s died. A book of condolences from the team can be a nice gesture to show your support. 
  • You might consider something to memorialise them in the workplace, too. Asking colleagues for ideas about what this memorial could be is a nice exercise to acknowledge your team’s relationships with that person. 
  • Encourage more manager 1-1s and make sure your regular employee wellbeing survey is up to scratch. This will help you to spot people who might be struggling and reach out to anyone who’s been especially affected by the loss.
  • Consider offering access to qualified counsellors, if you don’t already. Therapy can help people to deal with the complicated feelings around grief, and prevent or treat related mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.

Someone in your HR team will need to reach out to the family and answer any practical questions they may have about pay, pensions, life insurance, personal data and any belongings that might still be in the workplace (be sure to package these up nicely before you return them). Find out more about what to do when an employee dies on the website. 

What your bereavement policy should cover

Only 32% of employees are aware that their employer has a bereavement leave policy. But determining how you’ll handle this situation ahead of time is key to treating every employee fairly, and to helping your managers feel more comfortable dealing with a bereavement at work. 

Having a plan in place for compassionate leave, bereavement leave, and who’s responsible for what, exactly, lets managers concentrate on what matters: providing support to the employee in question.

Grief is heavy and unpredictable. Avoiding the subject entirely might feel easier (or even like the sensitive thing to do) but it’s one of the worst things you can do when managing a bereaved colleague. We hope this guidance and the bereavement policy template below will help you and your managers to feel more comfortable when dealing with difficult conversations around loss.

Spill helps you to spot when employees are struggling to cope, and gives them access to counsellors covering 80+ areas of expertise, including bereavement.

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Use this guide to build an employee bereavement policy and communication procedures to make sure team members are properly supported during a difficult time