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05 September 2018
Supporting grieving employees

As a leader in business, you will undoubtedly be faced with challenging employee situations from internal grievances between employees, to determining how best to provide staff with the support they need at different stages of their employment with your organisation.

One such scenario which managers are likely to encounter sooner or later is a grieving employee who has lost a loved one.

This is according to Kay Vittee, CEO of the Adcorp’s Support Services portfolio: Kelly and Quest, Charisma Health Solutions, Zest Hospitality and Rightsource.

With the world observing international breast cancer awareness month this October, Vittee emphasises that the effects of disease, loss and grieving do not only impact employees in their personal lives, but have relevance in the workplace too.

“It is unrealistic for employees to put strong feelings of loss and sadness aside simply because it is the start of a new work day. We need to move away from the concept that problems are left at home. The grief employees work through during these difficult times and how this grief is received by managers and colleagues can have a long lasting negative impact on their work life, as well as on their view of the organisation which is moulded by the organisational culture and the values instilled in staff. A level of compassion and sensitivity should be encouraged in these circumstances.”

“What grieving staff need from their workplace is support and time to grieve. This support will differ on a case by case basis as some employees may need more time off work while others would benefit more from funeral plan claim procedure guidance or grief counselling,” she explains. “The important thing is to be sensitive to each individual’s needs.”

Looking beyond the traditional approach of offering staff three days off on a compassionate leave basis, for the death of a direct family member, Vittee suggests greater attention be placed on mental health and providing staff with personalised support while also having a contingency plan in place to ensure that business continues as usual – eliminating any unnecessary stress for the employee during a time when their focus will be on family and loved ones.

She adds that each case should also be viewed in isolation as the death of an extended family member or close friend can be just as devastating for someone as that of a direct family member, dependant on the role they may have played in the individual’s life as a mentor or caregiver.

The top 3 considerations for managers dealing with a grieving employee:

1. Giving the employee the option of time off

A grieving employee should be given the option to take time off to grieve. The amount of time will differ from person to person and some may take the standard allowance of compassionate leave, whilst others may opt for additional paid leave. While time off is important for most, employers should not insist that employees stay home. There are some who prefer to immerse themselves in work as a distraction while they grieve. This doesn’t mean that they are not dealing with the loss, but rather that they have found a coping mechanism.

If grieving staff prefer to continue working, their schedules should be relaxed slightly to ease mental pressure and limit stress levels. Managers should be flexible in this regard and have adequate resources on hand to ensure operations continue to run smoothly until the employee is ready to resume work. This could be through the practice of cross skilling your team members in each other’s roles to provide back up to duties or by procuring temporary, contingent support staff to ensure business as usual during this grieving period.

2. Ongoing grief support

When an employee returns to work after their compassionate leave, it should be established through conversation - with the employee, their line manager and / or an HR professional - what kind of support they would benefit from moving forward. This could range from wanting to go back to normal, being treated like every other employee, to accessing a counselling service or being provided with a private place to go if they need a moment in their work day to regain their composure. Respect and privacy are key to your communications with employees, continue to monitor their needs and offer support during the process.

3. Pay attention to mental wellbeing

Once employees return to duties, it is important for line managers, HR contacts and colleagues to remain sensitive to the employee’s loss by accepting that things may not return to normal immediately. The five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - are all part of the framework that makes up how we learn to live with loss. They are steps in a process, rather than set linear timelines which do not exist in grief.

Employees may struggle for a long-time after a bereavement to adjust psychologically. If not monitored, this can lead to ongoing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or even suicide.

Openly speaking to staff about mental health and the support available to them is vital to remove the stigma or any embarrassment employees may feel towards actively seeking out help and being able to identify the signs that they, or someone they know, may be battling with a mental health problem.

During the month of October, and as part of Breast Cancer Awareness month, you can show your support for staff, friends and family who have been impacted by the disease, those who have survived a battle, or those who may have lost a loved one to the disease, by wearing something pink.

Our employees will be wearing pink ribbons, hats, hairpieces and all things pink this month, in support of #Pinktober.