Bereavement and working life

Bereavement is one of the most common factors affecting employees’ performance at work, with an estimated 1 in 10 employees affected at any point in time, and it has been identified as a major life event that can cause or exacerbate mental health conditions, yet research has shown that bereaved people are being failed by a lack of support in the workplace.

The impact of bereavement

A mum-to-be has a miscarriage, someone’s teenage son is killed; an elderly parent dies; a long-serving employee is terminally ill; a colleague takes their own life – regardless of the circumstances, what grieving employees need is ongoing support and understanding from their managers and work colleagues. In the midst of events that can feel totally out of control, a supportive workplace can be an important source of structure and ‘normality’.

There is no prescribed or ‘right way’ to grieve; bereavement can affect an employee physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially and practically, and may lead to a radical change in their personal circumstances. The fear of returning to work and facing colleagues, a loss of confidence, and increased sick leave are not uncommon. Ability to concentrate, make decisions, meet deadlines, and maintain performance and productivity levels, can all be at least temporarily compromised. There can be higher incidences of job-related injuries and accidents7. This not only has the potential to have an impact on a bereaved employee’s ability to work effectively, but can also have a knock-on effect on other employees, who are often at a loss as to how to respond when a colleague returns to work after bereavement. Also, over time they may feel that accommodating the needs of a bereaved colleague places additional pressures on them.

Bereavement is often viewed as an event at a particular point in time, but it is actually the start of a process whereby the employee will grieve and have to adjust to a changed life over time. Significant occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, Mother’s or Father’s Days, Christmas, or other religious holidays, are therefore times when an employee may be affected, even years after a death.

Each individual will be on their own time scale.

What helps?

The individuality and unpredictability of grief requires a flexible response from an employer. Approaching these situations with sensitivity, understanding and flexibility can help support a bereaved employee by reducing the anxiety they may have about returning to work and managing their workload, ultimately minimising the impact on the organisation.

An informed and supportive approach is likely to mitigate the potential for increased absence and decreased productivity, improve staff morale and maintain positive working relationships with those affected. Staff who are well informed and well supported are known to work more effectively and remain loyal to their workplace. There is no doubt that returning to a supportive working environment following bereavement can be an important aspect of a bereaved employee’s adjustment to their loss.

A basic principle for any good employer is to recognise their duty of care for employees’ health and wellbeing in the workplace. Organisations that are prepared, are aware of the issues related to bereavement in the workplace. Having a bereavement policy in place can mitigate the costs of employee grief to all concerned and the likely impact on productivity of both the individual and the business as a whole, striking the right balance between a supportive environment and job accountability.

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