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

Local support groups

For those affected by death of an infant

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Call time on presenteeism: seven top tips

While employee absence rates have fallen to a five-year low according to the CIPD, presenteeism is widely believed to be an increasing problem.

Concern about heavy workloads, fear of redundancy and criticism from work colleagues can all play a part in discouraging employees to take time off when they are genuinely unwell or have been working excessive hours – and this can negatively impact business performance.

Employees going to work despite being ill or injured, or just putting in ‘face time’, could even be responsible for a greater loss of productivity that sickness absence, according to The Work Foundation. The Centre for Mental Health estimates presenteeism from mental health alone is costing the UK economy £15.1 billion a year.

PMI Health Group’s occupational health team outlines key steps to tackle the presenteeism phenomena.

1/ Review policies that discourage sickness absence

Although many companies have policies to manage absenteeism, presenteeism is rarely afforded the same consideration. Moreover, aggressive absence policies to prevent abuse of sick days can unwittingly promote presenteeism.

Procedures should be reviewed and revised if required to promote trust, encouraging employees to take time off when necessary without them fearing that it might negatively impact their job security.

Corporate policies should be supportive and properly communicated and understood by all managers and employees.

2/ Foster a culture of trust

Staff should have a clear mind-set that they should not be at work if they are unwell – and this should be engrained in a company’s culture. Managers should insist on sending employees home to recuperate to reinforce this mind-set.

Employee success shouldn’t be defined by the number of hours they put in as this will only serve to exacerbate the problem.

In addition, any criticism from colleagues should be swiftly responded to and countered so that employees feel they’re being treated with understanding and do not feel unduly pressurised.

3/ Lead by example

Senior management can be as guilty of presenteeism as ‘shop floor’ employees – and can be responsible, in part, for setting the tone and ethos of an organisation.

What’s more, minor ailments or conditions can become far more serious problems without an opportunity for proper recuperation. The same rules on presenteeism should be applied across the board.

4/ Accommodate and promote flexible working

Studies have shown that flexible working can increase productivity and reduce stress – but companies need to do more to promote such arrangement to counter presenteeism.

Recent legislation has helped increase opportunities for flexible working by giving employees, who have been with a company for 26 weeks, the right to request a change in working hours and for this to be formally considered – companies must also do their bit to support this.

According to a survey by fit-out company Overbury four out of five UK employees believe they need to be seen at work to win the approval of bosses and two thirds think it will further their careers. This despite more than two thirds believing they get twice as much work done when they are away from the office.

5/ Upskill staff to cover other business functions

Employees can be feel undue pressure not to take time off or to return to work before time if there are no colleagues capable of covering their workload.

By cross-training employees so that skill sets aren’t concentrated in the hands of too few, companies will not only help to reduce the probability of presenteeism by improve their resourcing capability, they will raise levels of staff empowerment and confidence.

6/ Teach managers to be empathetic

Managers should receive training to spot and deal appropriately with incidents of presenteeism.

Physical ailments can be much easier to identify than cases of mental illness but good management calls for meaningful dialogue with employees and an ability to detect and pre-empt any issues.

Reducing stress amongst workers and promoting a workplace environment conducive to psychological wellbeing should be prioritized.

7/ Invest in healthcare wellbeing

The business cost of employees who are unproductive because they are ill or disengaged due to being overworked is comparable to those off work sick. Health and wellbeing initiatives are therefore as important for tackling presenteeism as they are incidents of sickness absence.

Healthcare benefits such as cash plans and employee assistance programmes along with wellbeing initiatives, such as reduced-price gym memberships or cycle-to-work schemes, can protect against the effects of sickness and stress, allowing workers to focus on their jobs.

Early intervention and case management from occupational health practitioners can also have a positive impact in addressing presenteeism. HR professionals and managers however should be educated and made aware of when early intervention referrals are required.

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