#COVID-19 Roundtable: Supporting Colleagues Through Death, Bereavement & Grief

One of the last taboos, death and bereavement are still an uncomfortable topic. But with many losing loved ones – either directly or indirectly as a result of the COVID-19 virus – it’s more important than ever that employers have the right support for bereaved colleagues in place.

For this fifth virtual roundtable I am joined by a diverse range of leaders from large and small, public and private sector organisations. In our rich and open discussion, all share the issues they are grappling with when it comes to supporting death, bereavement and grief as well as personal experiences, valuable tips and action plans.

Grief in itself is not mental illness. But if not supported in the right way, the connected mental health issues and trauma can be very serious and have long term adverse effects on employees’ ability to perform their normal functions within the workplace. The first step is to normalise the conversation around bereavement. This virtual roundtable moves us closer to this goal.

The roundtable was hosted by Louise Aston, Wellbeing Director, BITC who has put together BITC’s “COVID-19: The impact of death, bereavement & grief” toolkit in conjunction with KPMG and National Grid. The discussion was chaired by me – Claire Farrow, Global Head of Content, Make A Difference.

The panel:

  • Claire Walsh, Health, Wellbeing & Injury Prevention Manager, BAE Systems
  • Nikki Kirbell, UK&I Health & Wellbeing Lead, Unilever
  • Sara Flanagan, UK Head of Wellbeing & Benefits, KPMG
  • Anne-Marie O’Donoghue, HR Business Partner, Executive Programs, Gartner
  • Ian Howarth, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Lead, East Cheshire NHS Trust
  • Jane Austin, HR Director, Wave Utilities
  • Dorothy Adebanjo, HR Consultant & Women’s Empowerment specialist
  • Minaxi Mistry, Founder, Equality Leaders
  • Kirsty Hunt, Training & Consultancy Manager, Cruse Bereavement Care

Thinking outside the tick box

When it comes to bereavement, traditionally organisations have taken a flow-chart approach. If an employee has lost a parent or sibling, they might be entitled to one day’s compassionate leave, or two days if they’ve lost a child.

Some might see this as a way to be fair to everybody. But this isn’t about an entitlement – like holiday. This is about responding to someone’s human needs.

As Kirsty explained: “Grief is messy – as messy as humans are. It’s as varied as all humans are”. The flow-chart approach is not ideal because in any case of bereavement there will be layers which will be different for every individual.

Sara agreed: “We need to recognise we’re talking about individuals here and we need to respond to them in an appropriate way”.

Nikki suggested that having a high-level policy is useful, but allowing the flexibility for local areas to manage the process themselves, means that everyone gets the support they need because people work through grief differently. Some people find being in work really beneficial, whilst others need to be away and need time.

She said: “Avoiding being too prescriptive and trying to treat each person as an individual, lends itself better to a human response than a flow-chart process.”

The evolving role of the manager

The key to providing this individual approach is training managers to have empathy, empowering them to make the right decisions and have the right conversations but also know where their responsibility ends.

Sara explained that at KPMG they have recognised that the pandemic means more people will be touched by grief. As a result, they have done a lot to upskill managers.

People are afraid of saying the wrong thing and making the situation worse, so just being able to give managers the confidence to have the right conversations but also to recognise that they are not expected to be grief counsellors is important.

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Managers need to have enough empathy to recognise there is a problem and that something needs to be done to support the bereaved colleague. In the current COVID-19 impacted environment, the loss of a loved one has been particularly brutal and therefore calls for a heightened level of empathy from managers.

There was consensus that basic empathy can be taught if it doesn’t come naturally to a manager. Louise explained that at BITC they are advocating recognising and rewarding compassion.

Kirsty suggested that even the least empathetic managers can be encouraged to sit down with someone when they are returning to work after a bereavement and say ‘can we plan some days of holiday where you think they may be tough?’

Jane explained that at Wave Utilities they’ve acknowledged that empathy doesn’t come naturally to every line manager. If a line manager struggles to have the conversations people might need, it is better to recognise this. If they are not going to be able to provide the support needed, someone in HR can have those conversations instead.

Some organisations are choosing to upskill mental health first aiders, to help them know and understand a bit more about bereavement. This means that they can have a holding conversation that reassures colleagues that what they are feeling is totally normal.

Making it inclusive

Claire Walsh is keen to ensure support for employees around the grieving process is inclusive.

Bringing her own personal experiences to the discussion, Minaxi explained that she is keen for employers to keep in mind what bereavement means for different faiths and communities.

As an example, she spoke about the fight between culture and expectation that she experienced when her father-in-law passed away. She explained that as a Hindu woman, she is expected to spend 13 days of mourning with her family.

Dorothy echoed Minaxi’s point, also drawing on personal experience. She explained that in the West Indian and Jamaican culture, they have nine days of mourning as they believe it takes nine nights for the soul to travel back to Africa.  Having a ‘proper’ send off is vital in the African communities and in the absence of this there is tremendous guilt, lack of closure, anger, no open coffin opportunity to give respect as they pass into the ancestral realm. This will lead to deeper anxiety levels which managers may need to be aware of as the engage with staff on their return to work.

At Wave Utilities, where every employee is entitled to 14 days leave after a bereavement, this gave an Asian colleague who lost his father the mourning time he needed. Jane then worked with him around expectations he was facing that, as the eldest son, he should take over running his father’s shop. Wave were able to look at options and apply flexibility to help this colleague juggle his conflicting responsibilities.

Ian, who has both EDI and wellbeing remits, is keen to educate around cultural difference but also respects some of the hard decisions his organisation has to make in terms of resource and cover.

Whilst acknowledging the importance of recognising the needs of different cultures and people with different identities, Kirsty also pointed out that whatever culture we are from grief is grief.

Dorothy on the other hand believes that culture plays a huge role in changing the ‘face’ of how people grieve. She said: “having a counsellor that ‘looks like you’ does make a difference because you are more comfortable with someone who understands a little of your own context”.

Making the business case

The discussion turned to talking about the thorny issue of balancing compassion with workflow.

Sara acknowledged that as a large organisation, KPMG has got the volume of resource to be more creative around solutions. It’s not always easy but they can talk to clients, negotiate deadlines. She reinforced however that the role of the manager is critical in that scenario.

Ian explained the challenges of working within an organisation that is running critical care on the frontline, explaining how hard it is to offer extended bereavement leave when medical staff are urgently needed.

He suggested that the way to form the business case was to explain that, as Jane had recognised, if you don’t give people time to recover from a bereavement, the organisation is likely to incur the cost in different ways, through sickness absence for instance.

Sara agreed, adding that the costs of mistakes made by a colleague because they were not ready to return to work should also be taken into consideration.

Sometimes it’s complicated

Kirsty reminded us that employers need to think beyond supporting someone immediately after death.

She explained that if you’re worried about a member of staff being all over the place three months or so after a significant bereavement, that’s normal. It’s important to get those conversations out around the workplace; what grief is, what grief isn’t, what’s normal and what’s not – that’s a good foundation point.

But some people will get stuck in ‘complicated grief’. If, six months or 10 months down the line somebody is still really struggling, then that is the time to get support from someone like Cruse or occupational health.

There are all sorts of reasons why some people experience ‘complicated grief’ often due to the relationship they had with the individual – perhaps how the individual died – every situation is different.

Dorothy suggested that for those that bottle up their emotions or put on a brave face, it would be useful for employers to have a quiet room where employees can go and scream and shout, compose themselves and go back to work. She also suggested that it could be useful for employers to have specialist grief counsellors coming in to the workplace for drop-in sessions.

On this point, Kirsty cautioned that in their experience, as grief doesn’t work to a particular timetable, often if this provision is made, employees don’t take advantage of it. She reminded us that grief doesn’t go away – life adapts. This means that it can be triggered at any point and that employers should be aware that in some cases, Covid-19 has reignited people’s grief.

What’s working: Wave Utilities Case Study

The very first policy that Jane wrote with her CEO at Wave was a bereavement policy. When they came together to start the company up (it is an offshoot of Northumbrian and Anglian Water) they realised that they had both lost a parent and knew how difficult that is to manage with work.

In her experience working in different industries, at the end of five days of bereavement leave – not even taking into account cultural differences – people hadn’t even reached a funeral. All that happened was that those people then had to go off sick. Both Jane and her CEO believed that was wrong.

Wave has got just under 300 employees. The temptation is for larger organisations to say they wouldn’t be able to afford to give two weeks’ bereavement leave. But Jane’s prior experience working with large organisations had shown her that people were going off sick anyway.

So, it doesn’t cost the organisation more to give them two weeks’ bereavement leave and it makes employees feel really cared for.

During the pandemic, Wave has also started working with a trauma counsellor who is doing whole workforce training on trauma. This is not just about bereavement, although bereavement can be linked to trauma.

What’s working: Gartner Case Study

Anne-Marie told us about a couple of recent cases that haven’t been Covid-19 related but which have been in the workplace. One of them was a leader who passed away very suddenly.

It was essential to prepare leaders to have the empathetic conversations with people in the team that are going through the loss process. It was also key to be very clear about the support which was available for colleagues. This included bereavement counselling that people could sign up to in their own time as and when they found it useful and wanted to.

It was equally important to have a tag-team approach between the senior leader that stepped in to support the team and Anne-Marie; making time to have 1-2-1s with people to see how they were doing and tailoring support to what would be most useful to them.

For Anne-Marie, the key words are “listening” and “being empathetic” to individual needs. It’s about listening to the team and letting them know they can have the support they need. But equally having that continuity plan to keep things moving.

An additional step Gartner took was to inaugurate a quarterly Award in remembrance of the person. This was the Company’s way of remembering the leader while recognising individuals who demonstrate the  qualities and passion that he stood for.

Anne-Marie’s overall reflection is that bereavement might affect people more than you’d ever realise – so it’s essential to be prepared for that and to take the time to adequately prioritise supporting people.

Culture of care and the role of the EAP

I wondered where Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) fit into the equation when it comes to supporting bereaved colleagues. Can signposting colleagues to an EAP be sufficient?

Kirsty made the point that some EAPs signpost to Cruse because they haven’t got their own skilled bereavement counsellors. For a lot of people just being signposted to a site with information that shows what they are experiencing is normal is enough to steady the ship.

Claire picked up this point reminding us that counselling for grief is not always needed right away and that you need to let it work its way through a person’s system.

Jane pointed out that much of what we have discussed comes back to establishing an organisational culture where people feel that they can talk openly. Claire agreed, reminding us that it’s all about changing the culture about what we’re prepared to talk about.

Dorothy suggested that introducing mindfulness in the workplace might enable managers and organisations in general to become more empathetic as they learn about mindful listening.

Louise summed up saying: “Experience of grief is unique to every person, but being in a supportive environment that allows people to express their feeling cans be hugely helpful. We hope that our Death, bereavement and grief in COVID-19 toolkit will help employers to develop an empathetic, compassionate and inclusive response so that bereaved people can be open, share how they feel and get the support they need”.

Across cultures we don’t always talk about grief, so people don’t know what to expect. If across society we can normalise the conversation about what grief is and what grief isn’t, that in itself is a step in the right direction.

The “COVID-19: The impact on death, bereavement and grief” toolkit is free to access here.

If you’re based in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, you can reach the charity Cruse Bereavement Care here.

If you’re based in Scotland, you can reach the charity Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland here

Louise Aston will be chairing the “Future of Work” panel and hosting a table in our virtual backstage lounge at the MAD World Summit – the global go-to digital event for employers who want to Make A Difference to workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing – taking place 8 October. We are also running Make a Difference Summit US in Association with Mind Share Partners on 15 October and Make a Difference Summit Asia on 11 November, 2020. Pick and choose the content most relevant to you or attend all the digital events with our Global Pass. You can find out more and register here.

About the author

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times


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