How to Manage Bereavement in the Workplace
Bereavement is a subject that is notoriously difficult and upsetting to discuss generally, let alone in a workplace. For many employers it can be difficult to know how to respond and how best to support employees through bereavement. Sadly, however, it is something that everyone will have to deal with at some point or another.
Employers need to be prepared for occasions when an employee might lose somebody close to them or perhaps even fellow colleagues. It’s important to strike that balance between being supportive, open and flexible, while also adhering to business protocols. For some people, work is an important coping mechanism, and can provide a sense of distraction and normalcy during distressing times.
So, what are the legal obligations of an employer during periods of bereavement, and what policies should be in place? How should an employer communicate with the affected colleague and are there other religious and cultural considerations to consider?
What are an employer’s legal obligations?
Under UK law, employers have a set of obligations that they need to adhere to in case of employee bereavement. Anyone classed as an employee has the right to time off if:
- A ‘dependent’ dies; or
- Their child is stillborn, or dies under the age of 18.
A dependent might include a spouse or parent, a person who relies on them to make care arrangements or a person who would rely on them for help in the event of an accident, illness or injury.
- If an employee’s child dies, then that employee has the right to two weeks off under The Parental Bereavement Leave Regulations 2020, also known as ‘Jack’s Law’. In this case, the child has to be under the age of 18 or be stillborn after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The law does not state how much time off should be allowed if a dependent who is not someone’s child dies. It simply says the amount should be ‘reasonable’. This time off is for dealing with caretaking issues, including leave to arrange or attend a funeral.
- In the case of the death of a child, the employee is entitled to Parental Bereavement Pay. There is no right for employees whose dependents have died to be paid, but some employers might offer to do so anyway. Employers should have a policy on this.
- If the person who died was not a child or dependent, then there is no legal right to time off in these circumstances. However, regardless of whether an employee has the right to time off or not, employers should still try their utmost to be compassionate towards an employee’s situation.
What policies should an employer have in place?
A bereavement leave policy provides employers and staff alike with information on what to expect when it comes to bereavement, providing guidance and reassurance in times of uncertainty. If managers do not have a bereavement policy to refer to, there may be inconsistencies in the way colleagues are treated across the organisation.
While bereavement leave isn’t a legal requirement, companies will often have their own policies in place for permitting time off. Of course, this is discretionary, but remember to let your team know who to speak to and where to find your basic bereavement policy (e.g, in your employee handbook).
- If your organisation has a bereavement policy, it should say:
- When leave for bereavement could apply;
- How much leave your organisation provides;
- If leave is paid, and the amount of pay (this might be called ‘compassionate’, ‘bereavement’ or ‘special’ leave).
Ensuring that you have a policy with appropriate support in place can help to facilitate recovery. If the employee doesn’t want counselling services now, then they may do in a few months’ time. Do you need to look at additional counselling benefits? Above all, let them know that emotional support is open for all and their mental wellbeing is a priority.
To highlight that priority, it might be worth considering offering mental health first aid training to employees, encouraging an environment of conversation and support when things get difficult.
Religious and cultural considerations for employers to consider
The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from discrimination because of their religion or other beliefs. Employers should try to accommodate religious beliefs and customs surrounding bereavement where it is reasonable and practicable to do so.
Most religions have their own customs around death and employers should carefully consider these against their own policies for any potential conflicts. Refusing to allow an employee to attend religious rites after death or to grieve in accordance with the demands of their culture, could be considered indirect discrimination.
Employers and employees should agree together how an employee takes time off for both religious and non-religious funerals.
Good communication is key
When it comes to acknowledging the loss, firstly speak with your affected employee or the deceased’s family. It may be appropriate to send a card, flowers, or a donation on behalf of the business to an appropriate cause or charity, rather than directly to the family.
If a colleague has passed away, then perhaps one of the hardest aspects will be to tell your team. You’ll know which type of communication will be best, whether that’s a phone call or collective Teams meeting. Whichever communication route you go down, ensure that they are told quickly to prevent second-hand news spreading throughout the virtual office.
Grief is a natural response people have when they experience a bereavement and it can affect people in different ways. As everyone experiences grief differently, it’s important for employers to:
- Be sensitive to what each person might need at the time;
- Consider the person’s physical and emotional wellbeing, including once they’ve returned to work;
- Recognise that grief is not a linear process and affects everyone differently – there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and it can affect people at different times following a death.
Asking when the colleague anticipates returning to work is unlikely to be appropriate in the first days of bereavement, when an employer should show compassion and support. However, it is important to start a dialogue which will allow an open discussion around how they are coping, the organisation’s approach to bereavement leave, and when they might be ready to return to work, as well as any adjustments that might help with this (e.g. a phased return).
On average, the productivity of a person experiencing intense grief is assumed to be 70% of their normal capacity in the first six months. Line managers should hold regular reviews with their colleague to ensure communication remains open, and that the colleague feels able to share any issues as they arise. Managers should be aware that bereavement can have an ongoing impact on performance, and this should be taken into account.
Having a team member go through bereavement at work is a situation no employer wants to experience. Unfortunately, it’s part of life – and knowing how to handle it can make the recovery process easier for both the employee and the rest of their team.
It’s important to remember that every situation is different, and whilst a compassionate or bereavement policy can outline the necessary protocols, it’s important to treat each individual bereavement differently. With a policy in place, you can focus on providing the compassion and support that your employee will need during that difficult time.