Bereavement – what employers can do to assist grieving staff

Abigail Holmes

Bereavement is likely to affect almost everyone during their working life, and can have overwhelming and debilitating effects on an employee. It is surprising then that there is very little law regulating this area, although there are developments on the horizon in relation to parental bereavement. Even so, there are many things an employer can do to assist a grieving employee in these difficult times.

What’s the problem?

All the bereavement charities and support groups acknowledge that employers find this area challenging and are not always sure about the best approach. Employees too often struggle to know what to say and frequently opt for the safe approach of saying nothing. This was borne out in research by the Sue Ryder charity which found that 51% of respondents were scared of saying the wrong thing to someone who was recently bereaved. This figure rose to 63% amongst the 18-34 age group.

The legal bit

Currently, under the right to time off for emergencies, employees have a “day one” right to have “reasonable time” off work to deal with an emergency involving a dependant, which includes a spouse, child or parent. This time does not need to be paid but in practice many employers do pay for two to five days as part of a compassionate leave policy.

Whilst grief of itself is not a disability, if it became a trigger for depression and was likely to last 12 months or more, it could amount to a disability, obliging employers to make reasonable adjustments.

For the first time, parents are to get the “day one” right to two weeks’ leave if they lose a child under 18 or suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy. This is a paid right at the statutory rate for a week’s pay (currently £148.68).

Beyond the law

One of the most difficult aspects for bereaved employees upon return to work is their loss going unacknowledged. Managers and colleagues tread very carefully, not because they don’t care but because they don’t know what to say for fear of upsetting the bereaved employee. After losing my dad last year, one of the most memorable and comforting moments at work was a conversation with a colleague who took me for a coffee and asked me what sort of man my dad had been, what he did for a living, and where he was from. I was so relieved. I had been desperate to talk about him as he was constantly on my mind. That simple question provided a positive outlet for me in my grief; that conversation will not be forgotten.

ACAS has published a good practice guide for managing bereavement in the workplace guide which includes a template bereavement policy, FAQs and case studies. It also deals with specific situations such as where a child or a colleague dies. Its best practice includes:

  • ensuring the bereaved employee knows that he or she is not expected to work – they need to hear that work comes second and that they must take whatever time out is needed;
  • having regular reviews to discuss any strategies and adjustments that might be helpful upon the return to work; and
  • making employees aware of support services such as counselling or assistance schemes.
Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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