Grief: Support the bereaved, don’t ignore the taboo

I’ve recently returned to work after a seven-month hiatus navigating my life being turned upside-down.

Grief: Support the bereaved, don’t ignore the taboo

In July, my dad died. Still writing or saying that now, so many months on, doesn’t feel real.

That Tuesday morning I lost my hero and so many other people lost what my dad was to them – their rock, their advisor, their problem-solver and their friend.

In many ways it was sudden, but in so many others it wasn’t. It was sudden, in that we dropped him at hospital expecting him to come home in two weeks and he never did; but it was also incredibly drawn-out, as he suffered for 14 long weeks.

This brave, heroic man underwent a complex operation that lasted 13 hours and took 10 days to wake from. He fought through seven weeks in ICU, with multiple complications, then six weeks in a ward before he couldn’t fight anymore. Every day was filled with twists and turns, and every day our hopes were raised and dashed.

But the real reason I’m writing this is not to relive that time (it runs through my head most days anyway, to be honest), but to instead acknowledge how grief can touch and shatter each of us in the blink of the eye, and to start a conversation about the active role employers can play in helping bereaved employees to rebuild their lives when they’re ready.

During painful life experiences, most of us are lucky to have friends and family around to support and encourage us to put one foot in front of the other when all you want to do is curl up and escape from the hell you’re living. But this year has made me realise how important it is to have the right work family around you – and, beyond the people, the right work culture and values.

The fact is, grief itself can’t be fixed. If only it could. This painful experience ebbs and flows. It causes brain fog, debilitating exhaustion, intense confusion, self-doubt and fear.

While it cannot be fixed, the way it is approached in the workplace can be, and there’s so much more employers could be doing.

Navigating grief is bloody difficult and, despite it being something that impacts everyone at some point in their life, UK law does not recognise this. There is no statutory bereavement leave and that can put people under extreme stress if someone they love dies.

I’m pleased to say that in my career in comms, most businesses I have worked at have had some form of bereavement policy. But often these feel like a box-ticking exercise rather than something the leaders had really thought through should it happen to one of the team.

Token, nominal amounts of time don’t cut the mustard. How can you quantify your grief and mental ability to work in numbers of days or weeks? The underlying implication of ‘We’ll leave you for a week or two and then hope you’ll come back and we can spare the office from your grief and pretend it hasn’t happened’ makes the bereaved feel even more disconnected. Similarly, quantifying the time off allowed based on the relationship to the person who has died is just mind-boggling and, frankly, archaic in a world where blended families are commonplace and friends can often be as close as, if not closer than, family.

Of course, time is an important factor, but the role of a good employer should reach far beyond that. Patience, support, flexibility and understanding are what make the difference.

By their very nature, HR policies can feel formal, but the thing employees should ask themselves is: "What are the values that sit behind these policies, and do I have confidence that they will come through in how that policy will be applied?"

There is so much more that can be done: flexibility with working patterns and type of work to suit the bereaved person's mental state; open conversations so co-workers can better understand the impact of loss; having a long-term view – grief does not simply go, and recognising times are going to be hard in the months and years afterward will help the bereaved feel seen.

Grief is not a conversation we should shy away from. I hope this will encourage leaders and HR departments to consider their approach to grief policies and what really sits beneath the words on the page. Are they set up to cope with having a team member out of the business? Do they know that they would go the extra mile for someone at rock bottom?

Employees will remember how you handled the situation when they were grieving, so rather than be a worry for them during an incredibly painful time, why not be a pillar of support?

And in the run-up to Christmas, I’d encourage you to reach out to those who have lost someone – because believe me, this time of year is beyond tough.

Katy Stolliday is co-founder of Blurred

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