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8th Mar, 2023

Victoria Sartain
Victoria Sartain
Job Title
Senior Content Writer

Dealing with bereavement is different for everyone and tends to be something muddled through as best we can, while life goes on around us. With work often considered a distraction from the emotions associated with grief, employers are in a prime position to offer significant support.

Lizzie Pickering, Speaker and Grief Investigator at bereavement charity The Good Grief Project (pictured below right), discusses measures employers can take to help their workforce.

Jane and Lizze - Grief blog

Q: What should workplace grief policies include?

A: It’s really important companies have clear grief guidelines – which could sit equally under the mental health banner as well as entirely on their own. They should be well signposted so when needed employees can see exactly what the procedures are and what’s available, such as time off and counselling. There should also be resources connecting people to relevant material, such as the NHS or mental health support groups.

It’s common for bereaved people to leave their jobs because their grief hasn’t been handled well – and that can just be the silence around it because people don’t know what to say.

I work with psychotherapist Jane Harris [pictured above left], who founded The Good Grief Project with her partner Jimmy following the death of their son Josh in 2011. We go into companies, and often start with an educational grief talk to management and HR, and then, should somebody in the company die or experience a major bereavement, we would return and hold a meeting for the team to help them either find ways to cope or understand what the bereaved person is going through. We’ll demonstrate ways of having those difficult conversations, so people feel comfortable engaging in them.

Q: How else can employers help bereaved employees?

A: Bereaved people often put on a metaphorical mask, so that everyone thinks they’re okay, but they’re often suffering in silence because of other people’s lack of understanding and checking in. And as the silence builds, people will often leave work to go somewhere where nobody knows what’s happened to them. And so, the silence continues.

Good grief provision shows an organisation cares. But even beyond a grief policy, we love suggesting things like companies having a grief ally for the bereaved, which could just be someone they know particularly well on a team and feel safe with providing added support. It’s not rocket science – it’s simply a question of asking someone how they’re doing, if there’s anything practical you or the company can do to help, or if they would like a coffee, which might be in-person or over a video call.

Offering to talk every so often can be very reassuring for someone in the early stages of grief – this is one of our biggest findings at the charity. I think the loneliness of grief is one of the hardest things to bear, so if a company continues the checking-in procedure very gently, it lets the bereaved know they’re thinking about them. And it’s not just for a year – it really is forever. But it’s also not heavy duty – people don’t necessarily need training.

It's about breaking those barriers down to remove that deadly silence, ensuring businesses don’t lose their best staff.

Q: What other types of support do you recommend?

A: The five-day statutory bereavement leave is valuable, but it’s what happens beyond that. In some companies, counselling is offered for six weeks in the first year after the death, but after that people are generally left to their own devices.

I think Jacinda Ardern [former Prime Minister of New Zealand] said it so beautifully: “We cannot know your grief, but we will walk beside you every step of the way”, and that’s what companies need to be saying: we can’t change anything but we are here for you and will support you. It can be helpful to offer staff a compassionate leave day – a ‘grief day’, to allow them paid time to perhaps remember an anniversary, for example. It’s a wonderful positive message of support, and it’s not going to cost the company a fortune, but it is going to retain loyalty.

The other powerful thing is when companies suggest fundraising in memory of the person who has died. Fundraising is never just about offering money. It’s also about creating a community around what’s happened, and it’s often a positive way to educate about how someone died or how the bereaved member of staff is feeling a year or two years on.

We mustn’t judge anyone in grief. In the workplace, we never know what anyone’s been through in the past. An employee may have been bereaved in childhood, or it might be their grandfather has died – which some employers many not consider a ‘big issue’ because of his age. But what if he was the most significant person in their life because their parents died when they were young? Another scenario is the death of a pet triggering a strong reaction which might be the result of cumulative grief from an early trauma, or the pet being their main company at home.

Q: How can grief affect us mentally and physically?

A: Problems can arise a year or two after bereavement, as often people can have a lot of support in the early days but suffer when that wanes.

Shedding tears should be seen as an absolute gift because if we’re not crying, we’re storing all that stress up in our bodies, and we are going to get ill. So don’t be fearful if you catch somebody at the coffee machine in tears – you will inadvertently be helping them find some relief to continue their day.

Another possibility is that people who want to help get rebuffed as the bereaved may just not want to talk at that time. So, they give up, and later, when the individual is ready to talk, no one will ask them. The moral of the story is never stop checking in.

Some of the physical side effects of a bereavement can manifest in things like panic attacks – brought about by suffering in silence while trying to focus on work.

There’s a great irony that when a loved one dies, the shock can make us stop breathing normally. We hold our breath, so we’re starving our vital organs of oxygen and we can get ill. For example, I had pneumonia on and off for four years after my son died which was a direct response to my grief. Stomach-related issues are also common a ‘gut reaction’, and a ‘broken heart’ is a reality.

Q: Does remote/hybrid working help or hinder grieving workers?

A: I think there are pros and cons of remote working and grief. One way it has helped is the wider accessibility people now have to services online. Hybrid working has real advantage because people can be at home in a safe space and not have to travel to the office each day.

It goes back to checking in, making sure people don’t feel too isolated and have enough support.

Q: What should employers suggest in terms of additional time off?

A: Grieving employees often worry about how they’re being perceived by their manager or colleagues, or about the standard of their work.

I met a lawyer recently who had been through a major bereavement and was involved in a house clearance which was proving to be incredibly stressful. His firm suggested to me that perhaps giving him a month off might be useful, but the idea of that traumatised him even more because he didn't know how he would cope with his client list and he worried about his team. I investigated what was needed in a practical way, which was for him to never return to the house on his own. His friends had suggested they would accompany him for whatever was needed so instead he decided to take one day off a fortnight, and arranged for different friends to help him little by little with the clearance task.

He ended up taking about six days off in the end, not a month. And it meant his team could openly plan around his absences. Everybody was communicating and informed and he was no longer panicked about how he was going to maintain everything. It meant he had the structure of work which he loved. The loyalty there was just phenomenal.

Situations like this are also good for the whole team because they can see how they would be supported if they were going through the same thing.

Q: What types of supportive resources work particularly well?

A: We always follow up our educational sessions with an interesting list of reading and audio suggestions. Jane Harris and Jimmy Edmonds have just written a book, ‘When words are not enough: creative responses to grief’, and I have a book coming out in May, ‘When grief equals love (long-term perspectives on living with loss)’. Often in grief the last thing you feel like doing is reading, but actually, it really helps, and you might find two or three gems that inspire you. Audio books can be a great aid too when focus is low.

We’ve made podcasts on mental health and grief for companies where we record interviews with staff sharing their stories of bereavement and loss – it's powerful to hear what has helped fellow colleagues and what didn’t. This can often resonate more than advice from total strangers. It can form part of the intranet resources.

These communications can act as a bridge so that people feel less fearful they’re going to be judged about not coping, because it’s natural not to cope in grief.

We love our work because it’s all about connecting to grief rather than putting a lid on it. And that's a good thing. What I’ve learned in the 23 years since my son died is that the pain you suffer represents love. If you can think of it like that, it helps to give a different perspective on the pain.

Q: What does your corporate outreach work involve?

A: A typical corporate session with The Good Grief Project might be billed as: ‘Managing grief and supporting each other through bereavement’, aimed at anyone going through bereavement, or supporting their colleagues. It provides hope and positive ways of moving forward, covering:

  • The physical aspects of grief

  • Understanding accumulative and anticipatory grief

  • Language around grief - what can we say?

  • How teams and individuals can support each other with less fear around those difficult conversations

  • Does time heal? How to look for openings rather than closure

  • Grief culture, what we are taught about grief

  • Having a toolkit for managing grief

  • The rich seam of energy and loyalty when grief is addressed and colleagues are well supported

Each session includes a follow-up email with the highlights of the talk and signposting to resources and reading, to send out to staff and for inclusion on an intranet. Part of our fee goes towards funding the charity’s Active Grief Retreats for bereaved parents.

To find out more about supporting your employees, visit The Good Grief Project.

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