Death is perhaps one of the last taboos – which is quite different when compared to the Victorian era. It’s part of the cycle of life that we like tidied up and sanitised - at least in British culture - so we don’t have to talk about it, or at least as little as possible. Grief tends to be dealt with as a private matter.
None of this helps when it comes to how employers can best help their staff dealing with bereavement.
It’s such a highly emotive topic, and line managers can feel very uncomfortable about what should and shouldn’t be said; it can be easier for them to be cold, to see a bereavement as being irrelevant to the job that needs to be done; or struggle when they’ve had their own recent deaths to deal with and become like a counsellor with their team member.
Signposting to professional support
It’s an example of where an EAP comes into its own. Professional support is important in being able to understand the full picture of what’s happened.
The impact of a bereavement covers a spectrum depending on the nature of the relationship, whether there are any other factors to deal with - if the last contact had been negative, if relations had been strained for some time, if there was a suicide – what can sometimes turn into “complicated grief”.
An EAP professional will be able to explore the level of significance in the employee’s life and unpick complexities. It’s a difficult conversation to have, that needs time and sensitivity, the chance to pause and reflect on what’s happening, what all the issues are, and what’s best in terms of next steps and the different ways the EAP service can help. The employee might be in a state of shock, be overwhelmed by their feelings.
In addition to looking at emotional wellbeing, the EAP will provide support on practical matters: funeral arrangements, dealing with belongings, the sale of property, how to look after other members of the family who might now need more help themselves.
The role of line managers
Managers shouldn’t have to act as counsellors themselves, but need to be able to signpost to the EAP and provide the necessary understanding.
They should also be aware of cultural differences. While traditional ‘British’ culture might typically want to keep their feelings inside and appreciate a quiet handling of the situation; other cultures are more expressive and demonstrative.
They need to accept that the sense of bereavement isn’t something that can be dealt with quickly. Depending on the degree of impact, people may need time off or some temporary reduction in workload.
At the same time, it’s important to remember the value of work in helping staff and that it can be a welcome distraction from worries and negative feelings. They can benefit from the support of colleagues as well as from the sense of normality and the routines they’re used to.
The worst thing for most is for their experience to be ‘medicalised’. I saw a case recently where a senior professional saw their GP and was signed off work for six months. This is poor practice, not helping someone to recover but to see themselves as suffering from a kind of long-term illness.
Grief is a natural process that takes time and understanding, and there’s a need for regular reviews to take account of this process.
Managers need to ensure there’s always a discussion of individual needs, some empathy, that they are not imposing their thinking or solutions and they don’t expect people to just ‘go back to normal’.
In some situations, a bereavement can mean there is no ‘normal’ anymore – an employee may need time to re-make themselves, and their relationships with work.
Andrew Kinder is Professional Head of Mental Health Services at Optima Health and Vice Chair, Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), www.eapa.org.uk
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