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Coping With an Employee’s Bereavement

Earlier this year 21 year old student James Webb lost his life after drowning in Plymouth Harbour. He was a student at Plymouth University and is believed to have fallen in the water after a night out. He was in his third year studying Civil Engineering. Last week Plymouth University held their graduation ceremonies which James was due to attend. A certificate was handed to his parents while the graduates took to their feet with long and heartfelt applause to remember the young man. It was a profoundly moving moment in the ceremony and affected even those who did not know James. Our thoughts are with his family.

Whether it’s sudden and the outcome of an unexpected accident or following a long illness, death is always shocking. The loss of a loved one will affect all of us at some point in our life. It’s sad but inevitable. It can be difficult to know what to say or do in such times but as an employer you need to ensure you support your employees. Death frequently remains a taboo subject in the UK, but supporting bereaved staff properly is essential for the wellbeing and productivity of your employees and important for employee retention.

The law entitles employees to ‘reasonable unpaid time off to arrange and attend a funeral’. There is no further right to compassionate leave and no right to time off, paid or unpaid, to grieve. Many employers will give some paid time off for immediate family. This may include; husband, wife or partner, parents and parents-in-law, grandparents, siblings, children and grandchildren. If an employee requests more time off this may be granted as unpaid leave if you are able to accommodate it.

People deal with death and grief in different ways. Some people will want to take time off work to be alone or with friends and family to grieve. Others like to keep busy and will want to continue working to have some kind of distraction. As long as the employee is not being disruptive and is doing his job to the expected standard there is no reason why he cannot continue to work.

It can be difficult to know what to say to someone that has just lost a loved one. Some will try to avoid speaking to an individual altogether because they don’t know what to say. This can cause things to become awkward and can even result in a breakdown of relationships, whether that is at work or with friends and family. Saying something is better than saying nothing. By taking the time to speak with the employee you are showing you care and that’s important to all employees. Offer your condolences to the employee and say you understand that this is a difficult time.

When the employee comes back to work meet with him informally. You can’t change what’s happened but you may be able to help ease a return to work. Ask him how best you can help and support him through the grieving and adjustment period. Some people will not want to talk about what’s happened. If that’s the case you may need to inform other employees of this too.

Discreetly monitor the employee. It takes some varying periods to come to terms with the loss, and some people take much longer than others. Some may experience ill health issues such as anxiety or depression. Learn to pick up on hidden signs of distress by providing the opportunity for confidential non-work conversation. Alternatively, you can offer access to a named member of staff with whom the bereaved employee can talk in confidence, or organise specialist support.

Everyone grieves in different ways and at different speeds. As employers we have to recognise that and do what we reasonably can to accommodate it.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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