How can workplaces improve support for bereaved employees? Red Arc discusses what employers need to know.
Bereavement has been in the news recently, with changes to Bereavement Support Payment announced by the Government and the documentary about Rio Ferdinand and his children following the loss of his wife to cancer.
We hope that such publicity will encourage employers to think about how they can improve support for bereaved employees.
Bereavement is one of the most common situations affecting performance at work, with an estimated one in ten employees affected at any point in time.[i]
The impact of bereavement
The circumstances can vary significantly from the loss of a child, a tragic accident, terminal illness, losing an elderly parent to suicide or terrorism.
In many instances the family will suffer from extreme shock as well as the impact of the loss itself.
Grief can affect people very differently.
It is important for employers to understand that grief can be an extremely long-term, if not a never-ending process.
Support from family and friends is usually very good in the early days but within a few weeks of the funeral, this tends to fall away and employees can then feel very isolated.
It is not unusual for employees to suffer physical symptoms triggered by their grief and emotional state.
An employee who is grieving may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions and maintaining performance.
Changes in the workplace such as organisational or job role changes, can appear to have a disproportionately adverse effect on a bereaved employee, so employers do need to be mindful of this.
How employers can help
Employers should ensure that they have a clear yet flexible bereavement policy.
Not only is this very important when put into practice for grieving employees but it is a clear message to the workforce as a whole as well as new recruits of a caring, responsible employer.
In our experience, employees very much value emotional support from a source independent to their employer.
People are often very wary about sharing their emotions with their employer and perceive that disclosing their feelings may be viewed as a sign of weakness.
Bereaved people may experience a loss of confidence and self-esteem and employees often worry about how their colleagues view them and fear letting them down.
An independent support service can help employees to develop coping strategies, perhaps to help them return to work or support them in their role.
Apart from long-term emotional support, which can be a life-line to a bereaved person, a wide range of practical help can also be provided, for example, decisions regarding care facilities for a parent, supporting children in their grief, adjusting to personal circumstances, preparing to return to work.
Charities and self-help groups can be very beneficial; a good support service will identify those that are appropriate, such as CRUSE, Winston's Wish and Child Bereavement UK, WAY (Widowed and Young).
Some examples of support
RedArc recently supported a man who lost his wife suddenly following a tragic accident.
He was left with two young children aged eight and six. The dedicated nurse provided lots of literature and signposted him to organisations to help support him and his children.
As well as regular telephone contact, the nurse organised face-to-face bereavement counselling and was able to link the children to a local bereavement charity.
The Nurse also helped him prepare for return to work and assist him with discussions with his employer about what would help him.
His boss showed great empathy for his situation and when the time was right, arranged for him to work from home and reduce his hours.
This provided a sense of stability for the family. When he did eventually return to full-time employment, it was agreed he could start half an hour later in the mornings so he could continue to take the children to school.
Bereavement by suicide is such a difficult situation to cope with, and we are able to support people affected by this.
Recently, a lady lost her husband after taking his own life and we were in contact with her soon afterwards.
The nurse was able to help her with some practicalities in addition to the emotional support.
We were able to offer a much-needed listening ear, ongoing one-to-one long-term telephone support, provision of literature and details of local support groups.
She returned to work after 3 months on an agreed phased return, in a less pressured role on reduced hours.
Both the company and this lady gained from this arrangement as she was able to continue working. She felt supported by her manager and has increased loyalty to the company.
Support services available
Support services are available directly or can be offered as an added-value service by employee assistance programmes (EAPs), protection insurance (income protection, critical illness, life), private medical insurance and cashplans.
However, employers should be cautious because the content of support services offered can vary significantly.
Some services can be a very light-touch helpline whereas others can provide long-term support from a dedicated nurse who can assess and organise the most appropriate face-to-face therapy or counselling
Continuity and content of support is very important, particularly bearing in mind the long-term and changing nature of grief.
Christine Husbands is managing director of RedArc
[i] McGuinness, B (2009) Grief in the workplace; developing a bereavement policy.
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