How can you help employees to mend a broken heart?
By Diane Hatton, Registered Mental Health Nurse from our Managed Care team
Losing a loved one can be one of the most difficult things we will ever face in life. Understandably, we all deal with grief in very different ways. Some of us want to be alone, some prefer to be surrounded by the people closest to us. Some may be angry or even numb while others can be bewildered about how to move forward.
Sadly, recorded deaths in England and Wales peak in January* at a time when people should be looking forward to the year ahead instead of mourning the loss of a loved one.
Here are 8 things you can do to support an employee back to work in the most sensitive way.
*According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
1/ Be understanding about compassionate leave
During this difficult time they need to hear that work comes second. Nobody wants to trawl through their contract or staff handbook to see how much time they are entitled to have off work. Give them all the information they need even before they ask. It will be one less thing for them to worry about.
2/ Share the news
Ask them if they would like to stay in contact by phone or email 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.
Find out if they would like to be contacted by their work colleagues before their return to work and clarify how much information they want them to know about the nature of the death. Ensure that everybody is informed about the bereavement so that they can be sensitive to their colleague upon their return to work.
3/ Be conscious of diversity
Within most workforces there will be people from various cultural and religious backgrounds whose mourning rituals must be respected. Be understanding about these traditions and timings and how this will impact on the individual’s return to work.
4/ Lend a sympathetic ear
Once back at work allow them time to talk about how they are feeling and encourage them to reminisce about their loved one and share happy memories. Even though some days they may put on a brave face, a kind word to encourage them to talk can mean a great deal.
Remember grief can also interfere with sleep so fatigue, anxiety and mood swings are common. But knowing that they are supported by their employer can help minimise stress and subsequent periods of sick leave.
If you have an Employee Assistance Scheme or a cash plan, encourage them to make full use of the telephone and face-to-face counselling services on offer.
A buddy scheme could also prove invaluable – appointing someone to watch over the employee without being intrusive.
5/ Practical ongoing support
There are likely to be good and bad days as the bereaved adjusts to life without the person they lost.
Be mindful that it can be much more than just an emotional adjustment; bereavement often leads to changes in the financial circumstances of an employee who loses their partner for example, and then becomes a single parent on a single salary.
It is important to keep dialogue open to discuss any extra support they may need such as time off for bereavement counselling or to consider more flexible working hours around new childcare needs.
Longer term, significant days such as the anniversary of the death, or the birthday of the person who died, can also be particularly difficult so sensitivity around these times particularly when considering requests for specific days off, will help employees manage their grief.
6/ The power of counselling
Grief and anger can often give way to longer term depression. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness which means that people are often afraid to ask for help – or may not even know if there is a type of counselling that’s right for them.
While Cognitive Behavioural Therapy may be right for one person, Gestalt or even Arts therapy may work better for others. An EAP counsellor will be able to talk through the many options with your employee to find what might work for them and their personal circumstances.
7/ Graduated back-to-work plans
Employees may feel very apprehensive about returning to work following a bereavement and while ‘return to work policies’ are not a legal obligation, a well thought out plan can help the process for all concerned by clarifying roles, responsibilities and expectations.
This needs regular contact and consultation and possibly even the input of third parties such as a councillor or a GP. Any recommendations such as flexible working hours or changes to a job role needs to work for all involved – including other team members.
8/ Useful contacts
Cruse Bereavement Care www.cruse.org.uk
Local support groups www.gov.uk/find-bereavement-services-from-council
For those affected by death of an infant www.lullabytrust.org.uk