Bereaved employees being let down at work

Grieving employees are not being supported at work, both immediately following a death and in the weeks beforehand, according to a study involving 2,000 recently bereaved UK employees released today. The research was carried out by family owned funeral directors CPJ Field.

Only 43% of bereaved people surveyed say their employer has a bereavement policy, so most either haven’t defined the support they can offer, or haven’t made staff aware. 

Employers are also failing to support team members in the time leading up to a death as they experience what is known as anticipatory grief, which involves coming to terms with the impending death and life without that person. Only 22% of those supporting a close relative through a life-threatening illness or injury were given flexible hours, another 22% could take short notice holiday and 17% were allowed to work from home. Very few employers are  adapting team responsibilities and tasks, with only 15% of bereaved employees getting extra support from their team when needed and 8% being given a break from customer-facing roles.

The authors of Grieving at Work say clear and widely communicated bereavement policies which include anticipatory grief are vital because few people share their need for support at the time. Once employees discovered a relative had a life-threatening illness or injury the survey found only 32% told everyone at work straight away. 32% waited until the death was imminent, while 19% waited until afterwards. A further 13% told their line manager, but kept their situation from colleagues.

Bereaved employees across the industry sectors surveyed said they got more support from colleagues than managers, with 35% saying they were very well supported by their boss, and 40% saying the same of colleagues. Worryingly most felt more supported by regular customers or clients than HR staff; 53% and 49% felt well supported by these groups respectively.

The study also explores how bereavement and how it is handled at work affects staff retention. Over a third (34%) of grieving employees became more likely to leave their job after a significant bereavement. This figure climbs to 55% among 18-34 year old staff. Being seen differently professionally & personally was the top reason for wanting to leave (45%), followed by not seeing themselves progressing because others were worried about putting them under pressure (27%). A further 24% wanted to leave specifically because they didn’t like how the bereavement had been handled. 

Jeremy Field, Managing Director of CPJ Field, comments: “Bereavement policies are as essential as maternity and mental health, but setting out people’s rights in terms of employment is not enough. A successful return to work after bereavement takes careful handling as the employee faces the almost impossible task of returning to life without their loved one in it. Work has a big role to play in finding this new normal, so everyone within a workforce needs guidance in how to support colleagues through bereavement.

“Death is one of life’s great taboos and without knowing what to say, the temptation can be to say nothing at all and this is often worse. As our research shows, being seen differently at work is the biggest driver for employees wanting to leave work after a bereavement. Employers of all sizes need practical resources on how to support grieving colleagues to protect their people during this vulnerable time.”

Steven Wibberley, Chief Operating Officer at Cruse Bereavement Care, said: “Time and time again we hear from people on our National Helpline that they feel unsupported by their employers after the death of a loved one. This can often cause further distress at a very difficult and challenging time.

“It is vital organisations have a bereavement policy in place to ensure employees feel supported when they go on bereavement leave and are treated with empathy when they return to work. We work closely with businesses to help put policies in place to provide the best outcomes for both the employer and employees.”

Speaking when ACAS published its guidelines, Managing bereavement in the workplace, Acas Chair Sir Brendan Barber said: “Grief from the death of a loved one can be an extremely sad and emotional experience for anyone. It can affect people in different ways in the workplace and managers should have the skills needed to handle it.

“Our guide aims to help employers manage this difficult situation with their employee in the immediate aftermath of bereavement as well as longer term.

“It includes advice for managers on how to get the balance right in order to be supportive, compassionate, flexible and practical towards employees who are dealing with bereavement.”

Advice and support

If you are an employer or employee and need support or advice for dealing with bereavement in the workplace, please see the Managing bereavement in the workplace guide from ACAS – the information and advice organisation supporting on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law. 

If you or someone you know need support following the death of a loved one, contact Cruse Bereavement Care’s Freephone National Helpline on 0808 808 1677 or https://www.cruse.org.uk/get-help.

Author: Editorial Team

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