Supporting bereaved employees takes more than just policies

Tuesday, 01 August 2017

Legal expert Kim Pattullo, from Addleshaw Goddard, explains how HR can help staff who have lost a loved one.

Surprisingly, not all employers have a bereavement policy. Of those that do, the period of time off after suffering a loss varies, and is at the employer’s discretion. Leave tends to be between a few days to up to a week, with employees getting the longest time off for close family members. The loss of a friend will, at most, allow one day off to attend the funeral. While this can help an employee to focus on arrangements and the funeral itself, it is often once the funeral has taken place that they require additional support. Shock or the sheer exhaustion of dealing with a protracted illness can have a severe impact. While some people will appreciate the structure and distraction of work, many others suffer from anxiety and depression following bereavement.

With more staff staying in the workplace for much longer than previous generations, this is a situation that managers and HR professionals will encounter increasingly often. The question is: what more can employers do to assist at such a difficult time?

For employees who suffer from mental health illnesses such as depression, it is important to have a line of communication between them and the employer – perhaps with HR or the line manager. Where possible, an early referral to the business’s occupational health provider is crucial, both as a pathway to accessing other medical assistance and in securing the best chance of the employee successfully returning to work in the future. The objective should be to have a referral and appointment within four weeks of the diagnosis of depression. This is an extremely delicate conversation to have with someone so recently bereaved.

For an employee who wishes to have the distraction of work, there can be issues with performance, which can dip substantially on their return. At this point, managers have a key role to play in discussing the support the employee wishes to have. A return to work discussion about workload levels and weekly catch ups are recommended, and it’s important to keep a watchful eye on the team member. You also need to consider whether the employee has a mental health condition that would qualify as a disability. If so, there will be a requirement to make reasonable adjustments and not to take action that would discriminate against the person's disability.

Financial matters can add greatly to the stress and anxiety experienced by a bereaved employee. The loss of a loved one who was the main breadwinner can have a devastating impact on them and their family, especially if there was not time to put financial affairs in order. Only by talking to them will this come to light. Some employers may be able to help with zero-interest loans or by directing the employee to additional sources of support and advice.

Managers and HR professionals are the key to dealing with staff struggling with bereavement. They can provide support and pass on vital information to the employee, including the fact that employee assistance programmes are much more than just telephone helplines. It will be for the manager or HR to tease out whether the employee has financial worries caused by their change in circumstances. However, employers must ask themselves this: have managers and HR professionals been trained to engage in these sensitive discussions with confidence?

Shared from People Management