Occupational health and supporting employees through grief


Jean Watkins discusses the importance of helping employees navigate the emotional and practical challenges that accompany a bereavement, so as to minimise the potential for stress and mental health issues during a vulnerable time.

The Covid-19 crisis has been a stressful period for many, challenging both those who have previously experienced poor mental health and those who haven’t.

About the author

Jean Watkins is head of bereavement at the National Bereavement Service

For those who have suffered a bereavement during this difficult period, whether from the virus or from other causes, the impact of the pandemic has been even greater, with the distress of losing a loved one amplified by restrictions on funerals and, in many cases, an inability to say goodbye.

The crisis has brought an often-overlooked occupational health issue to the fore: bereavement is one of the most stressful and emotionally difficult times in anyone’s life and yet few companies have policies to address it or strategies to help their employees cope.

Not only can this lead to mental health problems that can have far-reaching and long-term implications for the employee; it can also result in poor productivity, management issues and sick leave absences for the employer.

At a time when stress, anxiety and depression are affecting so many, now is the time to consider what needs to be done to support those coping with both the grief and practical considerations involved in the loss of a loved one.

Occupational health professionals have a key role to play in educating employers on the triggers that can lead to poor mental health following a bereavement and encouraging them to put plans in place to support health and wellbeing in order to protect people and productivity.

Understanding the uniqueness of each bereavement

Despite the fact that death affects us all, few employers consider the impact of bereavement on their organisation, beyond an understanding of their obligations on compassionate leave entitlement.

It remains a difficult topic and yet it can have a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of a member of staff, which may be exacerbated if they do not feel that it’s appropriate or acceptable to discuss their loss at work.

Without a clear policy or open culture, members of staff may also find it difficult to take time off to tackle the practical steps of registering a death or arranging a funeral, and may hesitate to raise concerns about how they’re coping emotionally, all of which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression.

The assumption that grief is a process that people will work their way through and come out the other side can sometimes create a workplace culture that involves overlooking a “blip” in performance and expecting the bereaved colleague to get back to normal after a short period of time.

For some who have lost a loved one, this may be true; resilience is as individual as the grieving process and each relationship lost through bereavement. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that the impact of a bereavement is unpredictable, even to the person who has lost a loved one.

None of us can know how we will feel or cope when a loved one dies, even if the loss was expected. Even those who might usually consider themselves emotionally tough, capable of coping with high levels of stress and in good mental health can be surprised at how overwhelmed they feel following a bereavement.

Often, poor sleep patterns and the added burden of dealing with the responsibility of arranging a funeral or dealing with loved one’s possessions and property can exacerbate feelings of hopelessness and despair.

There may be family issues or even conflicts to deal with and, if the deceased did not have a funeral plan and had not made a will, there could also be financial concerns, with an employee struggling to find the money to pay a funeral director and solicitor.

For employers, the uniqueness of each employee’s response to grief makes bereavement a challenging area, both in terms of occupational health support and for business continuity planning.

Death can impact on the life of any individual at any time and their response will be specific to them. It may also be unpredictable, with some who seem to cope well in the immediate aftermath of a loss, finding it increasingly hard to deal with either the practical tasks or their emotions days or weeks later.

Moreover, the grief of one employee can affect their colleagues too. Responses to grief can include low mood, emotional or even angry outbursts and lack of focus, which can result in a challenging workplace environment for the whole team, with knock-on effects on staff morale and productivity.

Preparing for the unpredictable

Thanks to the unique nature of each bereavement experience, and the unpredictability of when an employee might lose a loved one, it might seem a difficult scenario to plan for, but that’s not the case.

While many employees may not be affected by the loss of a loved one during the course of their tenure with a company, if the employer assumes bereavement could affect anyone on the team at any time, they can minimise both the personal and commercial risks.

By helping employees acknowledge that the loss of a loved one could affect them, employers can help them prepare for the future by discussing the matter with their partners, parents and others close to them.

Offering employees a will-writing service as part of a benefits package is useful way of doing this, for example, because it helps them to consider the future for their family in the event of their death, opening up the topic for discussion.

Structuring the benefit so that it includes a will for the employee’s partner or a mirror will for them as a couple also helps to manage the risk of an employee being affected by the stresses and strains of prolonged probate in the event of losing a partner.

The process of thinking through what could happen is also often a trigger for other key life planning decisions, such as taking out a funeral plan and life insurance and it’s not unusual to find that these steps can help people feel less concerned about the future, contributing to reduced stress and anxiety.

In addition to pre-empting the impact of a bereavement for employees, companies can also help them cope after the event by signposting them to sources of guidance, support and, where needed, counselling.

For example, the National Bereavement Service (NBS) can offer a bereavement benefit package that includes will writing along with a dedicated helpline number that connects callers to trained advisors, backed up by management data on the service.

Any helpline or bereavement response service should include both practical and emotional support so that employees can access the help they need, whether they’re stressed about how to register a death or arrange a funeral, or they’re struggling with waves of grief and low mood.

It is also important to consider that not everyone feels comfortable with talking to a bereavement advisor over the phone, so the service should include options for getting in touch with support in different ways, including email or live web chat, for example.

Often, the issues affecting an employee’s health and wellbeing are not a quick fix, but a trained bereavement advisor will be able to signpost someone who needs additional help to a British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy-registered counsellor, providing the kind of specialist support that most companies do not have the resources to offer in-house.

Similarly, if an employee is struggling with making a decision about the best provider of funeral or legal services to meet their needs, having a helpline that can offer contact details for vetted providers often reduces the kind of stress and worry that can often escalate to longer-term mental health issues.

Addressing the triggers for poor mental health

To conclude, over the past few years the workplace has become much more open about mental health and there has been some great work across multiple sectors to reduce the stigma around this issue.

Bereavement is a key trigger for mental health issues, so it is vital that considerations on how occupational health practitioners can anticipate and mitigate the mental health implications for employees who have lost a loved one is fully explored.

Occupational health practitioners who wish to find out more about the NBS should go to https://www.thenbs.org/

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