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The management at work of employee bereavement


I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and my condolences go out to the Royal Family and the many millions of people whose lives she touched during her reign.

The death of our Queen after a 70-year reign is obviously a major event which affects us all and there are constitutional protocols surrounding her funeral arrangements. Bereavement is something that will undoubtedly be experienced by all of us at some point in our lives, but on a much smaller scale of course.

For those of us who experience a bereavement during our working lives, how it is dealt with can either increase or decrease the pain that is felt.

Knowing What to Say and Do

In my experience, all too often, the response of the employer/manager can be insufficient, or inappropriate, compared to what is actually needed at the time.  Regretfully, the consequences of bereavement on the life of an individual are often poorly understood, particularly its psychological impact, despite it being an event all of us will experience at some point.  I have seen too many instances where employees are asked to return to work after attending the funeral of a loved one, but their loss and grief are completely ignored by colleagues and/or management when they return.

However, the inadequacy of the managerial response is not necessarily the result of indifference to an employee’s distress but more often because the manager doesn’t know what the appropriate level of support should be.

Words are Valuable

It is never easy to know what to say to someone who is bereaved and saying ‘I’m sorry’ just seems inadequate.  However, very often those words are all that the person needs to hear to know that others care.  Unfortunately, a bereaved person is too often avoided because others feel awkward.

We have to take our lead from the individual concerned.  While you are rushing into a meeting will probably not be the right time to start this conversation but making some quiet time over a cup of coffee might well be more helpful and shows sensitivity.

A lack of support can also mean that the employee may take time off sick as they struggle with their loss and may be demotivated on their return. However, if there is genuine support this will engender loyalty and goodwill towards the employer.

Making Time to Listen

So what is it that stops a manager from managing this situation with greater sensitivity?    Talking to someone who is bereaved is a skill and not one that is necessarily included within an MBA course taken by the CEO, manager or departmental head.    Many executives and managers have never been afforded people management training yet, despite this, we expect them to know how to interact with someone who was recently bereaved. In reality, it is an inter-personal skill that needs to be learned.

Of course, if there is an in-house counselling service, then it could be helpful to steer the affected person towards bereavement counselling. However, it doesn’t detract from the responsibility of the manager or team leader to make time to listen and offer condolences.  There is no need to turn managers into  bereavement counsellors but it’s important to ensure they can be empathetic, when appropriate, to a colleague in need of some sensitivity.  This is something that will certainly be appreciated by the bereaved person.

People rarely forget those who support them during times of challenge.  It is commonly said that when trouble or sadness strikes, ‘you find out who your friends are’, and in many ways that is true.  But not always.  You may have other friends who sadly didn’t know what to say and didn’t know what to do and so were, regrettably, not there for you. This is, unfortunately, what you will remember.

So, what can your organisation do to avoid the problem of appearing to be uncaring at the very time that care is needed?  Ensure that all your managers are trained in people-management skills and make sure that includes those who may be going through a bereavement.  If this is made a part of the training programme, then any manager will feel confident in approaching the subject!

What Can a Manager Do?

Talk to the bereaved person after the funeral to find out what support they require. Some may want to come back to work quickly and others later. Some may want colleagues to talk to them about the bereavement and others might not.  Managers need to find out what is wanted
When the person does come back to work, check in with them at regular intervals
Remember, there will also be significant anniversaries
Some working schedules may need to be reassessed until the person feels stronger
Introduce and publish a bereavement policy, possibly on the company intranet, if there is one

Key Points

Try not to ignore a bereaved colleague

Let them know with a word or gesture that you care

Incorporate listening skills into management training

Carole Spiers

Carole is the CEO of a leading UK stress management and wellbeing consultancy. She is a BBC Guest-broadcaster and author of Show Stress Who’s Boss! Carole is an international Motivational Speaker and is regularly called upon by the national press and media for comment. She is Chair of the International Stress Management Association [UK], founder of Stress Awareness Day, Fellow and Past President of the Professional Speaking Association, London. www.carolespiers.co.uk

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