Bereavement and the workplace

The IoD is an association of individual company directors. Many of our resources are intended to help members be the most effective business leader they can be. With this objective in mind, we address many of the most common challenges which occur in business life – but we are also aware that human organisations can produce situations for which no business manual has the answer.

Bereavement is inevitable, both for company directors and the people they employ. But how many business leaders actively prepare for the moment when an employee is bereaved?

To help IoD members develop a response which is both compassionate and effective, we have expanded the roster of the IoD Directors Advisory Service to include a consultant specialising in bereavement and the workplace. You can read more about Caroline Frazer below, and with Caroline’s invaluable input, here is some advice to help you do the right thing when an employee receives the news no one ever wants to hear.

The business case for caring

Bereavement accounts for a large share of the costs linked to poor mental health at work. The Government-commissioned Stevenson-Farmer Review (2017) asked Deloitte to calculate the direct cost to British companies of staff absence and low performance caused by poor mental health – the annual cost is £33bn-£42bn.

Bereavement is a moment of truth for an organisation and the teams within it. Handled well, a bereaved person will return to work productively. The culture of the business and the standing of managers will both be enhanced.

Handled badly, the bereaved employee is likely to be absent from work indefinitely, the team’s functioning will be impaired, planning workloads is difficult and the organisation may suffer reputational damage. Mismanagement of absence due to bereavement can lead to long-term sickness, constructive dismissal claims and costly tribunals.

It’s worth emphasising that a case of bereavement is also a test of the business leader as an individual. Organisations take their cues from the actions and attitudes of their leaders. If a business leader makes a special effort to cross the floor and personally recognise an employee’s grief, this will demonstrate that the leader knows how to do the right thing.

Managing a Bereaved Employee: The first contact

How much a business leader should be involved with a bereaved employee will depend on the size of the business. If HR support is available, they will handle much of the functional work, but personal recognition by the business leader is still a vital element in the process.

In a SME, the absence of dedicated HR resource means that the business leader will be involved in more ways, and for longer, with a bereaved employee.

Either way, in businesses large and small, there will come the moment when the business leader stands before a bereaved employee and tries to think of something to say.

Here is Caroline Frazer’s advice:

  • The conversation can be brief, but does need to happen.
  • Don’t avoid talking about what has happened. Do not worry about upsetting the person – they are already upset. Your acknowledgment of their bereavement will show them that they can be honest with you about how they’re really feeling.
  • It’s okay to not know what to say. You could say ‘This is so terrible, I just don’t know what to say’, or ‘I’m so sorry to hear about [who has died]’.
  • Avoid saying things that trivialise the loss, such as ‘time heals’ or ‘they’re in a better place’. The person will not be ready to try to look for positives and will experience clichés like this as not helpful.
  • Don’t speak about your own losses – you want to be empathic, but a focus on you will probably be experienced as alienating.
  • Be prepared to listen to what the person is finding difficult. Don’t be tempted to jump in with sentences that begin with ‘At least…’. You don’t need to try to change their situation and you can’t make it better. Showing that you can be there to just listen without needing to try to put a positive spin on what’s happened is enough.
  • And very importantly: grief affects everyone differently. Therefore, don’t make assumptions about what the bereaved person needs. Some people will be grateful for the opportunity to speak about their loved ones, others will prefer not to. Most people do prefer their bereavement to be acknowledged in some way. Everyone will appreciate being asked what they feel they need.

What else needs to be covered

The following subjects will also need to be addressed, either by the business leader, line manager or HR manager:

  • Check what they would like colleagues and clients to know about their bereavement – some people will want others to know details, others will find it intrusive.
  • If there is a bereavement policy in place, check that the employee is aware of it. If not, let them know what other leave may be available. Bear in mind that these are minimum guidelines and may not be sufficient.
  • Let them know you will be there to support them when they are ready to think about returning to work. Don’t go into details right away – they probably won’t be ready to hear it.

Managing a bereaved employee over the longer term

How much time away from work should be offered?

  • Each situation is unique. Some people want to get back immediately as work provides a structure they need. Others need more time away. Finding the optimum time to return to work comes from dialogue and negotiation, ideally including HR, the line manager and the bereaved employee.
  • Because bereavement can be such a disorientating and isolating experience, it is usually helpful for a bereaved employee to stay connected to the workplace. It is also essential for the line manager to manage the absence. Some questions to ask are:
    • How much time do they feel they might need away from work?
    • How do they want to be communicated with (email? phone?)
    • How frequently do they want to be communicated with?
    • Who would they like to be their main contact?
    • What details of their work and workplace do they want to be kept in the loop with?
    • What aspects of their work may they want, and feel able, to continue with while they’re away?
  • Investigate what policies exist and what options are available for a negotiated and phased return to work, including what type of paid or unpaid leave is available. Take the lead in guiding the employee through the logistics of this.
  • Aim to be honest and transparent in your conversations. A bereaved and traumatised person recognises that they need to return to work and will do their best to meet the needs of the organisation, but they need help to do so.
  • The effects of a bereavement can be psychologically and practically destabilising, so it’s important to keep other aspects of the employee’s life as stable as possible. Avoid changes to their role, team or line manager for a while (and certainly not without discussion) because this can be unsettling.

The return to work

  • Discuss with the employee how they would like to interact with colleagues on their first day back.
  • Ask how they are doing today. This shows that you understand that there are ups and downs, and you’re interested in the answer. You are more likely to get an honest response.
  • Communicate to the bereaved person that you recognise the impact of the loss, and that you understand that it will take time to adapt to it; you will help where you can.
  • Check with the bereaved employee which aspects of work may need to be adapted for a while. For example, someone who has had a traumatic and close bereavement and who has a challenging client-facing role may need some relief from that type of work until they have built up more emotional resilience.
  • Understand that a return to work probably does not mean a return to business as usual. There is likely to be a period where the bereaved person is not able to function as they did previously. It’s important to redefine for a period – through discussion and agreement rather than imposition – what is to be expected of them.
  • Because grieving is not a passive process, the grieving person has choices about how they manage their grief. They will be working out what helps and what doesn’t help at work, and their line manager can work with them to make any necessary adjustments.
  • The implication of the unpredictable nature of grief is that a bereaved person may feel relatively okay one day and completely overwhelmed the next. It’s important that there is an agreement in place to help the employee manage these ups and downs; to be able to remain as productive as they can be at work but also remove themselves when they need to.
  • Whilst for most people the effects of bereavement will become easier to live with over time, anniversaries (birthdays, anniversary of the death and funeral) can cause a return to earlier, more intense, feelings of loss. The line manager can help the employee plan for these events and to understand that these times are likely to be more difficult than others.

Introducing Caroline Frazer

Caroline Frazer is the founder of bluubell, a consultancy specialising in helping employees and their employers navigate the return to work after bereavement. Caroline is also a supervisor for the national bereavement support charity Cruse, and serves on the IoD Directors Advisory Service panel.

If you’re an IoD member who is managing bereavement in the workplace, or would like to know more about best practice, please request an Advisory session with Caroline.

Request Advisory session

© Institute of Directors. All rights reserved.

Better directors for a better world

The IoD supports directors and business leaders across the UK and beyond to learn, network and build successful, responsible businesses.

Supporting good mental health and wellbeing

Browse valuable mental-health resources from the IoD.
Internet Explorer
Your web browser is out of date and is not supported by the IoD website. It is important to update your browser for increased security and a better web experience.