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When a Bereaved Person Returns to Work

When a bereaved person returns to the workplace, many say that they are greeted with a wall of silence by their co-workers, who don’t know what to say and, scared of saying the ‘wrong thing’, say nothing at all. When this happens, the bereaved person not only has to deal with their loss, but also with a feeling of isolation at a time when they most need support. Bereavement expert Judy Carole gives employers some tips for helping settle a bereaved employee back at work.

Many people find it very difficult to phone or approach someone who has recently been bereaved, and often put it off until it is too late. The following procedures are therefore helpful, though the first points are more relevant when the person returning to work is a woman.

  • A welcome back card, flowers and so on, if they have been off work for an extended period.
  • Encouraging/arranging for that person to have break or lunch with co-workers
  • Showing continued interest in their wellbeing.
  • Giving the employee a reasonable amount of flexibility in both working hours and time off, which can help them cope with the combined stress of work and grief.
  • Understanding that the grief process takes time and that the worker cannot ‘snap out of it’.

If you are part of a company that do not have an Employees Assistance Programme , it may be a good strategy to set up a directory of phone numbers of other employees who have experienced a loss and who are prepared to meet with the bereaved employee for ‘tea and empathy’, if needed.

Saying ‘I am very sorry to hear of your loss. How we can best support you?’ covers most eventualities. Even saying ‘I don’t know what to say’ or ‘I wish I knew what to say’ is much better than not saying anything at all.

The workplace can become an unwitting partner by pressurising the grieving person into taking on a normal workload on their return to work, or expecting them to catch up on their work. In the long run, this is detrimental, both to the individual and the employer. Perhaps managers may consider the following phrases.

  • Please let me know if I can help in any way.
  • If you need to talk, my door is open.
  • If there is any way the company can support you through this, please let me know.
  • I can lighten your workload for xxxx period of time, if you feel that will be helpful to you.

It is also important to understand that everyone grieves differently. Grief is as individual as our lives, so managers and colleagues should try to accommodate the bereaved employee’s preference.

Judy Carole is a Bereavement Councillor and the author of ‘Beyond Tomorrow, The Essential guide to Life after Bereavement’ and ‘End of Life the Essential guide to Caring’ which won the runner up prize for the Public Understanding of Science at the British Medical Association Books Awards.



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