The loss of a loved one is perhaps the most devastating event that anyone can experience, with the impact rippling into all areas of a person’s life – including their work. Organisations that deal well with bereavement at work can play a significant role, not just in an individual’s healing, but also in improving the culture of the organisation itself.
Chris Hall, CEO of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, says that organisations reflect the broader culture – and the dominant culture in Australia is one where emotional things, including grief, are private matters.
“Grief takes place in a social context and has ‘rules’,” he says. “We’re not skilled at dealing with it, and workplaces reflect this. We don’t do any preparation, even though death is inevitable – then we’re surprised that we’re surprised.”
Robbi Chaplin talks from experience about her loss and how her workplace reacted. The former team manager at the Australian Red Cross, overseeing international aid worker and volunteer deployment, returned home in 2012 to discover her 19-year-old son Jesse had died in a tragic accident. A garage wall had collapsed on him while he was playing basketball.
“The next week was a blur,” she says. “My husband rang my employer, to say I didn’t know when I’d be in. At that stage, I couldn’t think about the next day.”
After a couple of days, Chaplin’s immediate boss arranged to visit, and delivered a care package containing food, alcohol, waterproof mascara, tissues, and a ‘trauma teddy’. But the most important thing for Chaplin was a book where all her colleagues, including those overseas, had written their thoughts and messages.
Her boss kept in contact every week as did her line manager and various colleagues. She was assured that there was no issue about the amount of time she took off. And 40 colleagues attended her son’s funeral.
“They made me feel very connected, and that I was being thought of. You can’t change the situation, but knowing that you are genuinely in people’s thoughts and hearts makes a horrible situation slightly more tolerable.”
After one month, Chaplin returned to work “but by morning tea, I knew I couldn’t be there. I wasn’t in the work head space at all, and I didn’t know when I would be. My work was a busy and big role, and they would have been in their rights to terminate the position, but they didn’t,” she says.
Chaplin finally came back after nine months, initially for two days a week, later rising to four. She says her office was incredibly supportive. “They got the balance right, allowing me to get on with my work, but also to talk about Jesse, and occasionally to cry.” Chaplin continued to have counselling within working hours,
According to Petrina Coventry (FCPHR), who worked as CHRO at Santos for six years, with some 30 years working in the HR space, setting up a bereavement policy enables the ‘heat’ to defuse from a situation.
“People’s struggle to cope with death and bereavement is very situational – it can be sudden, tragic, and that’s the reason for policies.” Coventry says they allow people to go to a place where they can find support and knowledge, while having a process puts them at ease when they’re in a highly emotive state.
In more than 20 years working in HR, Rhonda Brighton-Hall (FCPHR) has introduced bereavement policies and practices into the Commonwealth Bank, eyewear company Luxottica, and American food giant Sara Lee. In her experience, to deal successfully with bereavement in the workplace, organisations need to have three important elements in place.
- An on-call Employee Assistance Program (EAP), that includes specialist capability in bereavement.
- Leaders who know the basic things to do when a bereavement occurs.
- A culture of kindness and care, where not only HR, but all leaders can deal with situations with compassion.
EAP providers will have different models for different size companies. “Make sure that their response to serious issues is flexible, and responsive to whatever the circumstances are,” says Brighton-Hall. For example, an accident that leads to the deaths of several colleagues may require immediate responses. But Brighton-Hall cautions against relying too heavily on a process [such as an EAP], to solve everything. Chris Hall agrees that businesses should be wary of seeing EAPs as a panacea, “as they can abrogate responsibilities, and compartmentalise the difficult stuff”.
“Managers must learn the basics of grief, which is deeply personal and individual,” says Brighton-Hall. “As a leader, you should say [to a bereaved staff member], ‘I’m here, I care and I will give you the space to deal with this’; not to explain how you got through a bereavement.”
In regards to a culture of kindness and care, Brighton-Hall says we should “encourage colleagues, especially those closest to the bereaved person, to reach out to them in an appropriate way – and to do it repeatedly”.
Fear of intrusion
Coventry believes that organisations are realising that how they deal with bereavement reflects more widely on their culture. “Employees will be more engaged at work if they think the right thing is being done,” she says.
Nevertheless many employers still feel hesitant to intrude, says Chris Hall. “We need to acknowledge the loss – even brief contact from a manager or HR can be valuable,” he says.Simple things such as sending flowers, attending the funeral and communicating to a bereaved individual that they’re not letting the team down, can all have a positive impact.
“We need to overcome the fear of being too intrusive,” he says. “Be a good listener, and be prepared to accept strong emotions.” Hall suggests only offering advice if it’s asked for, and to be compassionate. “This is where leadership is so critical. Don’t make assumptions about how a person is feeling – ask them. And remember to extend support to colleagues as well.”
Your EAP people should be encouraged to talk to the bereaved person’s team, as well as the person themselves – especially around the time when someone is returning to work. And, importantly, managers should keep abreast of an individual’s situation, whether they are at work or not.
With the rise of social media, the risks of getting it wrong can go well beyond the experience of an individual employee, to affect the culture of an entire organisation. “Organisations should understand that they need to fill the void in communication in an appropriate way, especially with the family,” says Coventry. “If they don’t, there’s the potential for social media to fill the void.”
A key misstep to avoid is not acknowledging the family and their wishes. “This could easily lead to cultural harm, with close colleagues not getting ‘back on the horse’ again,” she says.
Taking time off
A crucial question is how much time a bereaved staff member should be absent. Some companies have unlimited leave in the case of, say, the death of a spouse. Others may offer as little as three days, making bereavement, as Chris Hall puts it, “sound like it’s a case of the ‘flu”.
Importantly, leaders should never assume that a bereaved staff member wants to stay away from work, as routine and structure can sometimes assist in healing. “Leaders need to be aware that some people don’t want time off from work – and can change their mind over this,” says Brighton-Hall. “Remember to find out how they are rather than telling them what they’re missing at work.”
Brighton-Hall recalls one incident where the best of intentions led to the opposite of the desired results. Following the death of an employee’s daughter in an accident, her boss told her to ‘take as much time as you need’. He then had no contact with the employee, and discouraged staff from contacting her, in the name of giving her ‘space’. The next communication the woman received was 14 months later, when the company threatened to terminate her contract, on the basis that she had abandoned her employment.
On returning to work, employees can carry a range of fears, such as controlling their emotions, or being behind in their work. “Managers need to understand it’s really hard to come back after, say, six months,” says Brighton-Hall. “Suggest going part-time, or just dropping in for a coffee in the first instance, to remove the discomfort.”
Although the majority of staff will eventually want to come back to work, a minority will not. “If you believe someone’s not coming back, start the conversation,” says Brighton-Hall. “Avoid making it a disciplinary thing – make it a positive thing instead.”
Robbi Chaplin has nothing but positive things to say about The Red Cross’s treatment of her during her bereavement. Despite this support, Chaplin chose to resign from her post in June 2015.
“It was a senior role, and you had to be operating at the top of your game all the time, and I wasn’t – even though my employers were happy. I needed time out, to grieve well, and to try to smell the roses again.”
For more information on this topic, see AHRI’s information sheets and guidelines here.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the April 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as “Good Grief”. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.