Bereavement: How would you deal with it in the workplace?

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So let’s talk about something that’s not so comfortable to discuss - bereavement in the workplace. Not a particularly happy discussion I know, but one that needs more awareness. In a time when we are all trying to have more discussions around mental health and do more around anxiety and depression in the workplace, it seems the link between grief and mental health is being overlooked.

Why am I bringing it up? Well I lost my Dad over a year ago and one of the many things I have learnt from this is that companies have very contrasting ways of dealing with bereavement. My family all experienced different attitudes from our respective jobs, some were supportive turning up at the funeral and allowing time off, some were less understanding giving one day paid leave and the rest had to be taken as holiday. So when we were attending my Dad’s funeral one of us was technically on holiday leave which is bewildering. This made me personally realise that the way a company deals with an employee during this time very much affects a person’s attitude to their employer. In fact, according to Comres, 56% of employees would consider leaving their job if their employer did not provide them with proper support during this time.

To gain an insight into how advertising agencies are dealing with this issue I spoke to industry professionals Richard Atkins, Head of Digital Production at BBH, and Andrew Waddell, COO at Proximity and Darius Andrew Director of Resourcing at AMV to get their viewpoint on how their agencies deal with this.  

One thing that all three mentioned was that when a member of the family dies that there is a standard amount of time that is given of course, but the employee is never forced to return straight away after this time period. It might be that they do a gradual return, some people benefit from returning to structure however you must ensure they are ready for this.  Richard Atkins spoke about how they adapt working hours and make them more flexible as if for example, a spouse dies the employee might have to now do the school run every day so needs a more flexible working arrangement to accommodate this.

On the topic of aftercare, all three commented that when someone has a loss, it is not the immediate aftermath of this that the company must focus on (obviously a return to work ensuring the employee is capable and ready to come back to work is important). However it’s a month or two months down the line when the realisation of what has happened and triggers begin that employers must keep an eye out for.

Darius Andrew mentioned loss can lead to increased anxiety and depression depending on the person and as a mental health first aider, he looks for signs for this - such as increased sick days, poor performance and disengagement. It is essential to be aware that if someone is suffering from a loss or anxiety associated with this that they are not put in an environment which will heighten this. In fact, through my own research, Darius mentioned they also make allowances for extra sick days in that year if an employee has suffered a loss such as loss of a child, sibling or parent.

Creating a supportive structure for employees so they do not need to pretend to have a headache and feel comfortable enough to mention they are feeling low or suffering anxiety is important. Andrew Waddell discussed how they have designated people who can offer a listening ear to employees struggling with grief, parenthood, diversity and more, so someone does not have to go directly to their line manager for support but has someone that knows what they are going through to some extent to speak to. Andrew has people in the agency reach out to him that he does not particularly know very well or manage, because they knew he had gone through a similar situation.

Another issue that arose from my discussions was sometimes it is hard to determine the relationship someone had with the person. I spoke to Briony Markham from Child Bereavement UK whose organisation trains companies on how to deal with bereavement, who told me about ‘Models of Bereavement’, which is how you need to understand the environment, how the person died and the relationship. For example someone might not have a close relationship to a relative now but it can still affect them as it is someone in their life that at one point they knew that has passed away. She also mentioned how they assist employers in understanding the needs of the employee whilst still keeping in mind it is a business and how to balance this.

Finally, just another fact, out of 2,500 bereaved parents in the UK, 1 in 5 were offered support by their employer on their return to work after the loss of their baby*. If companies could focus a little more on their approach and create a general awareness of how best to deal with bereavement it will create a loyal workforce who are empathetic and supportive. In times when agencies promote “cultural fit” as key, I think this is one of the most important factors within that – ensuring that people feel supported during a death.

Finally we all need to remember everyone will go through this at some point in life so treating people with the respect and empathy you would expect goes a long way – not just in the immediate aftermath, but at ongoing points throughout the future.

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