Supporting grieving employees following the death of a loved one
For nearly 40 years, The Compassionate Friends Victoria has been providing peer support to bereaved parents and siblings along with educating the community on the impacts of grief. We have heard a wide variety of accounts from bereaved individuals relating to how they were treated by their employer following the death of a loved one. Whilst some individuals felt well-supported in their work environment, others recounted particularly negative experiences, to the extent that some felt the only possible solution was to leave their workplace altogether.
In an effort to better educate and support workplaces in the area of grief and bereavement, The Compassionate Friends Victoria, in partnership with the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, have developed the following suggestions based on employee’s lived experience of what they have found helpful to help guide and support employers in the development of compassionate policy and practice within organisations.
Grief has to be lived through every day. It’s not something one ‘gets over’ like a cold or the flu. The ongoing care and support of my employer helps in easing the pain of losing our daughter.
What is grief? How long does it last? Does everyone grieve in the same way?
What supports are available?
Everyone, at some point in their lives, will experience the death of someone close
to them. Based on this knowledge, it would be a fair assumption that at some
point, one of your employees will experience bereavement.
You don’t need to be an expert in the bereavement field, however it is good
practice for employers and management staff to have some understanding around
the subject. You may like to consider:
- Arranging some basic bereavement professional development for your
- Have some understanding around things that may be inappropriate to do/say
(See Guideline 8: Be Respectful)
- Compile a bank of resources and useful links for staff to review and access
I was given the opportunity to take extended time off work well beyond the normal number of bereaved days without the pressure of providing a certificate.
There was no pressure placed on me to return to work.
Develop a Bereavement Policy
Preparing a bereavement policy is no different to a grievance or workplace
accidents policy – whilst we hope we never have to use them, the reality is that
these things do happen, and we need to be prepared for them.
In preparing a bereavement policy you might like to consider the following:
- What can you, and are you prepared to, offer a bereaved employee?
- What arrangements are currently in place with regard to compassionate leave?
- Can employees utilise other forms of leave (e.g. sick, annual, long-service,
unpaid) if required?
- Can you be flexible in your approach? Can colleagues donate leave to a
- Can you make provisions for extended leave at the organisation’s/manager’s
- Is the policy written in a clear and accessible way for staff?
- In what ways could you meet the practical needs of bereaved staff?
- Do you offer an EAP program?
That night (of my daughter’s death) I received a phone call from the National HR Manager to offer more support and see what I needed.
After the Death
Following the death of a loved one, many employers feel hesitant to ‘intrude’ in the immediate days that follow; however acknowledgement of the loss, and the offer of support and understanding at this time is very important.
While it may not be immediately obvious, even brief contact is appreciated and
remembered by the bereaved, and letting your employee know straight away
that there is no pressure or expectations from you, gives them one less thing
to worry about.
There are a range of things you can do immediately following a death that
can be helpful and supportive to employees:
- Send flowers and a card on behalf of the organisation.
- Call them, express your sadness for their loss and reassure them that
there is no pressure to return to work until they are ready.
- Attend the funeral if appropriate. If you are unsure, ask them.
- Assure them that their workload will be taken care of in their absence.
- Call them every couple of days simply to check in and offer support.
- If other employees are affected by the bereavement, it is important to extend
support to them
I was placed on a return to work program which included reduced hours, reduced work load and the opportunity to leave work on days when I did not feel strong enough.
Regular meetings were organised with the assistant director and my manager to check my progress.
Returning to Work
Returning to work following a bereavement can be difficult for an employee, as they often carry a range of fears with them, for example:
- What if everyone expects me to just ‘get over it’?
- What if I can’t control my emotions?
- What if people ask questions I can’t answer?
- I’ll be so far behind in my work, what if I can’t catch up?
- What if I can’t make it through the day?
There are many measures employers can take to reassure employees and ensure
that their transition back into the work environment is supported, realistic and
workable, for example:
- Ask your employee what you can do that will help them get through their first
- Issue an email to staff advising them that their colleague is returning,
and to be mindful of being sensitive, supportive and not overloading them.
- Offer them flexibility around their work hours wherever possible.
- Offer a return to work plan, that is gradual and offers flexibility
- Be realistic in your expectations. Try to put yourself in their shoes.
- Ease them back into their workload, so that it doesn’t become overwhelming.
- Be present and available.
My employer acknowledged the loss that we had suffered and also ensured that we were coping by regularly taking the time to speak with us.
Communication is an essential part of any business environment, and when it comes to interacting with bereaved employees, it is absolutely vital to maintain open and honest lines of communication.
It may help to consider the following points around communication:
- Keep in touch while the employee is on leave.
- Nominate a staff member or manager as the direct point of contact for your
- Ensure that all communications are delivered through one person.
- Consistency will mean that there is no confusion or miscommunication
for the bereaved employee.
- Upon return to work, maintain thoughtful and honest communication.
- Be careful not to make assumptions about their needs – ask them how
you can help and what you can do to make their transition back into work
smooth, comfortable and supportive.
- Reassure them that they can ease back into their workload at their own pace.
- Reassure them that no one has any expectations around their output at this
point in time.
- Communicate to their colleagues that they can support them and cover
some of their workload if necessary.
- Check in regularly with them to see how they are progressing and if there
is anything you can do to further support them.
It is the kindness and empathy of my workmates, from management down who simply sat and listened, left me in my own space or just knew when a pat on the shoulder was needed, that I will remember
Be a Good Listener
When someone is grieving, often the greatest supports you can offer
is time, and the ability to listen.
Some things to consider:
- Let your employee know that your door is always open to them,
for however long they need it.
- Be prepared to listen to and accept strong emotions.
- Unless they ask for it, don’t feel that you have offer any advice. They
aren’t asking you to ‘fix’ things for them. No one can take away the
pain and sadness felt by the bereaved, but having the support and
understanding of an employer can be a great comfort.
- If your employee would prefer to talk to a different colleague, give them
and their colleague permission to take time out of their day-to-day
schedule to do this.
- Provide those in your team who are providing support with an avenue
to talk and debrief if they need it.
- Consider giving all employees access to an EAP program and/or
bereavement support service if they feel they need additional external
Through my manager, my employer has shown fantastic compassion, set aside time to find out my needs and hear my story and provided practical assistance to help me provide for my family.
With compassion and understanding, the bereaved can better transition back into the workplace. Indeed, alongside the support of friends and family, the workplace has an equally important role in the support network and caring community of the grieving employee.
Some things to consider:
- Try to foster a culture of compassion and understanding within the workplace.
- Maintaining empathy beyond the first few weeks can require a conscious effort.
- Remind employees along the way that their colleague requires ongoing
compassion and support from them.
- Keep in mind that you cannot provide effective support if you do not look after
yourself as well. Self-care is important in order to avoid compassion fatigue,
- Make sure that you communicate to the importance of self-care to the rest
of your team.
After my daughter died, I felt very nurtured and was treated with dignity, compassion and gentleness I felt my privacy and my pain were respected which was important to me.
When interacting with employees who have lost a loved one, it is important
to be respectful of their needs, their grieving style and of their situation. Being
respectful, sensitive and accepting of your employee will make the world of
difference as they transition back into the workplace.
The following points may be helpful in maintaining respectful support:
- Give them the space to grieve in their own way and their own time.
- Be respectful of their privacy
- Try not to say things like “I know” or “I understand” unless you really do.
Alternative responses might be ‘I can’t even imagine what you are going
through’ or ‘it must be so hard for you’.
- Don’t make assumptions as to how they are feeling or what they need. Ask them.
- Listen to their needs, and try to assist in whatever ways you can.
- Appreciate that various cultures grieve and mourn in different ways –
try not to impose your own views and beliefs.
- Don’t avoid them. While there are no words that can heal their pain, to hear
no words and to feel isolated is far worse.
- Offer to spend time with them, but don’t commit to or suggest support that
you are unable or unwilling to follow through with.
- Avoid use of platitudes such as ‘They had a good innings’, ‘It was God’s will’
or ‘It could be worse’
- Don’t take anger or strong emotions personally. Grief is an emotional
rollercoaster, and the reactions of the bereaved are not a personal attack on you.
- Avoid comparing their loss to other losses. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint,
and no loss is ever ‘the same’ as someone else’s.
My employer arranged other staff to work with me on my return.
They arranged a slow return to normal duties reducing my work hours for six months and were very understanding of my performance at work at this time.
Be as Flexible as Possible
Offering flexibility in working arrangements to a bereaved employee can make a huge difference in their transition back into the workplace. Suggestions around flexibility may include:
- Giving them unrestricted time to return to work i.e. ‘you can return when
you are ready’.
- Allowing flexibility in hours e.g. altering start and finish times, temporarily
- Helping to manage leave arrangements.
- Being understanding if they need to take time off at short notice.
- Arranging a ‘return to work plan’ that provides structure, but allows
for reduced working capacity.
- Arrange for other staff members to assist with their duties until they are
ready to reclaim them.
My employer was unbelievably understanding during such a difficult time.
As I look back I can see that I wasn’t 100% effective, however my fellow management team supported me 100% with flexible deadlines and were genuinely interested in what my family and I were going through.
Being supportive in the aftermath of a death is important, and being supportive in the long-term is absolutely essential. Grief doesn’t have a set timeline. Your employee won’t just wake up one morning and be ‘over it’. They are adjusting to a changed world, one without their loved one in it, and learning to live with this new reality will take time.
Some things to consider when supporting a grieving employee:
- Try to be encouraging on a day-to-day basis. For a bereaved individual,
even walking through the door can be a huge effort.
- Acknowledge, and encourage them in their efforts to readjust to the
- Provide ongoing support as an employer and encourage their workmates
to do the same.
- It takes a strong and understanding team to support a grieving colleague,
make sure you support each other as well, along the way.