Organisations should improve support for bereaved staff, research suggests

Bereaved employees could struggle to cope with stressful and demanding work after they return to work if appropriate support is not offered, research has warned.

A literature review by Canterbury Christ Church University academics indicated that, although many organisations show sympathy and flexibility to bereaved staff, others make it difficult for employees to access the support they need.

It said that by understanding bereaved employees’ experiences of workplace support, organisations may be able to develop individualised care and support for those who experience mental distress when they return to work.

Researchers found that offering flexible working hours and reduced workloads were among the most helpful responses, as many staff who experienced the loss of a loved one worried about how they would focus on their work upon their return.

It discovered that many employees were expected to return to work within a few days and continue with their usual work tasks.

While short-term support could be described as “good”, longer term support with an unstructured “whatever is needed” approach was found to be particularly unhelpful.

Participants in one study suggested that organisations should appoint a particular person to help arrange informal support if needed, and indicated the employers should be more proactive in offering support, rather than waiting for staff to request specific assistance.

Another study found that individuals experiencing distress might end up driving support away, which created gaps in the support they received.

Leanne Flux, a PhD candidate at Canterbury Christ Church University, said: “The aim of this global literature review was to explore how employers were found to respond to bereaved employees. It has offered an insight into what support is received and what may be lacking.

“We found a lack of response specifically in long-term support, a lack of clarity around how much time is allowed off work for the bereaved, a lack of clear HR guidance in the way forward and a lack of understanding in how to performance manage a bereaved employee.”

The research paper, How employers respond to employees who return to the workplace after experiencing the death of a loved one?, was published in the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health’s (IOSH) Policy and Practice in Health and Safety journal.

Mary Ogungbeje, OSH research manager at IOSH, said: “In workplaces there may be a lack of guidance on how employers could support their employees during the grieving period and the return to work process. Managers can struggle to bring the subject up and may avoid the topic out of fear of saying something insensitive.

“It is important managers understand how an employee is feeling after returning to work. Both an organisation and the individual employee can benefit from having good policies in place. Being able to use discretion, such as providing the option to work from home, flexible working hours, and reviewing workloads and deadlines, empowers managers to be able to best support the bereaved employee.”

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