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Lucie Mitchell investigates what Covid has taught employers about understanding the needs of employees who are bereaved.
The impact of the Covid pandemic has brought into focus the crucial need for employers to manage bereavement in the workplace with compassion, sensitivity and flexibility.
According to the UK Commission on Bereavement, an estimated three million people experienced bereavement during the first two years of the pandemic, which is around 375,000 additional people bereaved compared to the previous five-year average.
“Covid has acted as a catalyst for opening up various wellbeing discussions in the workplace, bereavement being a prominent one,” remarks Lesley Cooper, founder and CEO of employee wellbeing consultancy WorkingWell. “The disruptions to people’s lives, and the resulting impact on mental health, meant that leaders had to recognise everyone’s experiences were different and learn not to assume anybody’s individual circumstances; so Covid pushed leaders to take more of an individualised approach to managing bereavement at work.”
From a legal perspective, UK employees may be entitled to time off work if they suffer a bereavement, but there is no legal right for them to receive paid leave – unless they have lost a child under 18 or suffered a stillbirth after 24 weeks, in which case they may be eligible for statutory parental bereavement leave (SPBL).
“With SPBL, the employee can choose to take two weeks together, two separate weeks of leave or one week of leave, which can start on or after the date of the death or stillbirth and must finish within 56 weeks of the date of the death or stillbirth,” explains Jonathan Haines, chartered legal executive at Gullands Solicitors. “Statutory parental bereavement pay is £156.66 a week or 90% of their average weekly earnings.”
Some organisations still choose to offer paid leave and will set out the amount of time employees can take off work, which is typically around five days. Yet Sophie Bryon, CEO of Ordinarily Different, says it’s not as simple as defining the number of days, as grief takes an incredibly long time to work through.
“Quantifying bereavement leave into a defined time is probably one of the worst things we could do from an HR policy perspective. When you then layer in the context of Covid, losing someone you love may well push people to breaking point. And this really is why we need to rethink our traditional handling of bereavement – five days off simply isn’t enough. Some people may not only have lost someone to Covid, but also suffered from not being able to say goodbye and having had restrictions on attendance at the funeral. This takes a long time to work through, and bereavement support really needs to step up to support their emotional needs.”
It’s therefore vital that grieving employees are given the support and time they need to navigate this devastating time. And this starts with truly understanding what employees need after experiencing loss.
“Employees need compassion, space and loyalty from their employer,” comments Bryan. “They need understanding and resources to support them – perhaps through an employee assistance programme that will provide them with legal advice and counselling. They also need a trusted safe space in the organisation – a colleague, manager or HR member who they can rely on.”
Donna Black, associate director at MD Communications, suffered a bereavement several years ago when her daughter sadly died while waiting for a heart transplant. She was grateful for the support given by her employer at the time.
“I’d taken a career break to care for my daughter, but when I started a new job six months after she died, with a regional law firm, I was very open with my employer about what had happened. They were hugely supportive, and my manager in particular was fantastic. The managing partner of the firm was great too, and even sent me handwritten notes to let me know he was thinking of me when it was the anniversary of her death. That empathy from my employer was hugely important in helping me get back into work and regain my confidence.”
There are a number of things employers can do to ensure they offer that compassion, support and empathy that is so greatly needed at this difficult time.
“Talk to your employee, let them know you are there to support them, ask what they need and put a personalised plan in place for them,” advises Price. “Never assume and don’t put any pressure on them to make immediate decisions. All employees will handle bereavement differently, so it’s vital to have a good understanding of your team, and their wants and needs.”
Ensure your bereavement policy is easily accessible, so everyone is aware of it and knows that they are being treated fairly and consistently, adds David Plotkin, founder of employment law and HR consultancy Plotkin & Chandler. “Also, provide training so that managers are equipped to provide effective support. Lastly, strive to adopt a holistic approach.”
In the wake of the Covid pandemic, and the rise in hybrid working, some bereaved employees may also benefit from being able to work from home, to give them the time and space needed to grieve.
“After a loss, some people can struggle to do basic activities,” comments Price. “Coming into the workplace and interacting with colleagues can often feel overwhelming for some. As such, hybrid working arrangements can prevent them feeling overwhelmed and allow them to assimilate back into the workplace at their own pace. Grief is a journey, so knowing that hybrid working is an option can be a huge relief for people struggling with bereavement and loss.”
Cooper agrees. “The flexibility of hybrid working allows for time alone to work through their grief or spend time with loved ones, while maintaining relationships with colleagues and being involved in office life. People need time to establish their own coping mechanisms and find their own pattern of work-life that suits their needs, so flexibility and understanding remains key.”