Managing employee bereavement
Grief can impact on the emotional, physical, spiritual and psychological well-being of a person who is bereaved and it can be difficult for an employer to know how to respond.
A compassionate and flexible approach can ensure that the impact on both the individual and the business is minimised.
This guide explains how you can best manage bereavement in the workplace, both immediately after an employee's loss and in the longer term when they return to work.
It also highlights the law around bereavement and offers best practice guidelines to help you through the process.
Benefits of supporting bereaved employees
While many bereaved employees will be able to manage their loss reasonably well, others can struggle to cope. Grief can interfere with an individual's thought processes, concentration and sleep patterns.
This can impact their work and relationships with managers and colleagues.
Using a well-managed approach to bereavement could help them to cope better - knowing that they are supported by their employer can help them through the process.
Other benefits to managing bereavement effectively include:
- it helps the employee to return to productivity
- it helps to reduce absenteeism
- it addresses the impact on other employees
- it strengthens employees' morale
Managing bereavement law and discrimination
All employees have the right to a 'reasonable' amount of unpaid time off to deal with an emergency, such as a bereavement involving a dependant.
This could be a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who depends on the employee for care.
'Reasonable' is not defined in law and will depend on the situation. You do not have to pay an employee for this time away from work but many employers offer paid special or compassionate leave.
Discrimination on the grounds of religious belief
You should consider any request for time off in connection with bereavement from an employee in a reasonable and objective manner.
The Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, as amended, protects employees from discrimination because of their religion or belief.
You should try and accommodate religious beliefs and customs where it would be reasonable and practicable to do so.
Many religions have bereavement requirements and you should carefully consider these against the business reasons for not observing the belief or custom.
Discrimination because of disability
For some employees, the effects of loss and grief can amount to a disability (eg depression) where the effects are long term (generally defined as lasting or likely to last over a year) and the impact affects the employee's ability to undertake day-to-day activities.
An employee with a disability has the right to reasonable adjustments and you should take reasonable actions to reduce or remove the effect of the impairment on the employee at work.
You should also ensure your employees are aware of the disability and be alert to recognise it, especially when performance or absence of a bereaved employee becomes unacceptable over the longer term.
Read more on how to prevent discrimination and value diversity.
In addition, read Equality Commission guidance for employers.
Addressing bullying and harassment
Bullying can include offensive or insulting behaviour by another employee which makes an individual feel threatened or the humiliation of an employee.
Harassment is defined as any unwanted conduct related to race, age, sex, marital/civil partnership status, gender reassignment, disability, religion/belief or sexual orientation that has the purpose or effect of either:
- violating the dignity of an individual
- creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for an individual
You should be alert to inappropriate behaviour following bereavement. Absence through bereavement can place burdens on co-workers and line managers.
A bereaved employee may be pressurised (inadvertently or otherwise) or bullied/harassed into returning to work or performing their duties to the same level as they did before the death.
The intentions of the bully/harasser do not matter - what is important is the impact that the behaviour has on the employee who is being bullied/harassed.
Read more on bullying and harassment.
Steps to take when managing bereavement
Employers can prepare for managing bereavement in the workplace by having a bereavement policy in place. It is good practice to involve trade unions or staff representatives in developing a bereavement policy.
The Labour Relations Agency (LRA), in partnership with Cruse Bereavement Care, has developed a good practice guide on managing bereavement in the workplace.
There is a draft bereavement policy within the guide that you can use as a checklist when developing your own policy.
Dealing with the immediate aftermath of bereavement
You should recognise that the bereaved person may be feeling numb or distressed during your initial conversation, and may not be able to take in or provide much information.
A follow-up call or email may be appropriate. A calm, empathetic approach in all communications from managers will ensure employees feel supported, and minimise their anxiety about returning to work.
In the early days of an employee's bereavement, it may be appropriate to:
- Offer your condolences.
- Ensure they know that they are not expected to work on the day the death has taken place. They need to hear that work comes second and that they must take whatever time out is needed.
- Begin a dialogue with them, asking how they would like to stay in contact eg if phone or email contact is preferred and if there are particular times to avoid. Be aware that in the first few days, they may not wish to speak to anyone as they may be in shock - this should be respected and is good practice. Be careful not to pressurise them into making decisions at this point.
- Ask how much information they wish their co-workers to have about the death and remember that this information is private under data protection legislation and to stick strictly to the facts. Ask if they wish to be contacted by colleagues.
- Consider what action needs to be taken if the death is in the media; particularly if the press contact the workplace or approach co-workers for interview.
- Ask if the employee wishes to be contacted by their colleagues - some people might appreciate the moral support from their co-workers while others may prefer to be left in privacy.
- Be conscious of diversity within the workforce and the impact this may have on, for example, days taken to allow the employee to fulfil religious or cultural expectations such as mourning rituals.
- Be open to revising and reviewing the situation with the employee and keep the dialogue open.
Managing bereavement and returning to work
Following the first days of bereavement, it is important to start a dialogue which will allow an open discussion around how the employee is coping.
The discussion could also cover your policy on bereavement if you have one, when the employee feels they might be ready to return to work and any adjustments that might help with this.
Each bereavement is different - some employees may feel able to return to work very swiftly, whilst others may need more time.
Carrying out regular reviews will allow you both to discuss and agree any strategies or adjustments which may be needed to enable them to return to work. This might lead to a temporary or long-term change in, for example, hours or responsibilities.
If your business does not have an internal employee assistance programme, you should consider referring them to an external organisation for bereavement counselling.
Cruse Bereavement Care can offer support, advice and information, both to those directly affected by bereavement and to those who encounter bereaved people in the workplace.
Manage sensitive situations
Special or significant days, such as an inquest or anniversary of the death, can also be particularly difficult. Sensitivity around these times, for example if the employee requests specific days off, will help them to manage their grief.
Over the course of a year, a bereaved employee may breach company sickness limits. You should consider whether it is appropriate to exclude some or all of the time off associated with the bereavement.
Similarly, it would be good practice to take the bereavement into account should there be an impact on any aspect of the employee's work or performance.
Bereavement can also cause changes in the personal and financial circumstances of an employee eg if they become responsible for raising their children as a single parent.
You should be mindful of an individual's situation and be aware that a flexible approach is most likely to support and retain the employee and minimise sick days.
Read more on flexible working: the law and best practice.