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Acas workplace expert, Steve Williams, Head of Equality – Managing bereavement at work

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Steve Williams is Head of Equality at Acas, having joined the organisation in 2001, after having spent five years as Head of the Race Relations Employment Advisory Service. Acas (The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) is a Crown non-departmental public body of the UK Government. Its purpose is to improve organisations and working life.

Steve Williams
Steve Williams

“…In our experience the majority of organisations / businesses want to do the right thing and treat their employees with dignity and respect, and the guidance helps to them to that…”

Bereavement guidance from Acas; why this is such an important issue in the workplace

At any time, it is estimated that one in ten people are directly affected by a bereavement. However, the way people handle bereavement is intensely personal. It can be a challenge for an employer or line manager to get the balance right between compassion and the operational needs of their business. A compassionate and flexible approach and a clear bereavement policy can ease the impact on the individual affected and their employer.

Our guide helps employers manage this difficult situation with their employee in the immediate aftermath of bereavement as well as longer term. This guidance is designed to help employers consider all the elements they are likely to face. It’s also helpful for employees to know what their employers should be doing to support them.

Grief from the death of a loved one can be an extremely sad and emotional experience for anyone. It can affect people in different ways in the workplace and managers should have the skills needed to handle it.

Organisations we consulted when we produced the guidance

Acas was asked by Government to work with stakeholders and employers to develop guidance on how employers can better manage bereavement in workplaces. The guide has been developed in partnership with Cruse Bereavement Care, Eversheds LLP, Dying Matters Coalition; as well as Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and Engineering Employers Federation (and many others).

Employers supporting employees who have experienced a bereavement

In our experience the majority of organisations / businesses want to do the right thing and treat their employees with dignity and respect, and the guidance helps to them to that. Bereavement is very much a fact of life and all employers at some time will have to deal with it.

Research shows that employers who handle this issue badly or insensitively can inevitably lose the work commitment of their employees. We know from The report: Life after death: six steps to improve support in bereavement (National Council for Palliative Care) found more than half of the 4,000 people polled would consider leaving their job if their employer did not provide proper support if someone close passed away.

Main points to consider for employers

  • Grief does not have predicted stages and phases. Everyone reacts differently to bereavement and this should be understood and respected by both employers and colleagues.
  • Employers can prepare for managing bereavement in the workplace by having a clear policy on it and training managers, HR teams and selected staff to have compassionate and effective conversations with bereaved colleagues. It is good practice to involve trade unions or staff representative in developing a bereavement policy.
  • A calm empathetic approach in all communications from managers will ensure employees feel supported and minimise their anxiety about returning to work.
  • Some employees may feel able to return to work very swiftly, whilst others may need more time. The relationship with the person who died and the circumstances of the death will all have an impact on the employee, particularly if the death was sudden or traumatic.
  • It is often difficult for bereaved employees to judge how they will feel in the workplace and a swift return to work does not necessarily mean that an employee will not need support.
  • There are likely to be ups and downs as a person suffering from grief adjusts to life without the person they lost. The full emotional impact of the bereavement may not be felt for some time after a death.
  • Employers need to be mindful of the family unit of the bereaved and appreciate that in many cases, a flexible approach such as offering part-time hours or flexible working is more likely to support and retain the employee and minimise sick days as they negotiate new or increased caring responsibilities. For more information on flexible working see: http://www.aca.org.uk/flexibleworking

Support employees are entitled to ask for after a bereavement

Employees are entitled to ask for reasonable time off to deal with domestic emergencies under the Employment Rights Act 1996. This has been determined to cover such issues as caring responsibilities, arranging the funeral and other immediate activities. It doesn’t cover time away if needed to cope with grief and loss and this is where the Acas guidance seeks to offer good practice advice.

Some employees may feel able to return to work very swiftly, whilst others may need more time. The full emotional impact of the bereavement may not be felt for some time after a death. Employees might want to ask for a more flexible working approach, which employers should be mindful of. 

How can employers take account of the differing needs of their staff (e.g. religious beliefs, parents, carers etc.)

Bereavement is very personal and there is no one size fits all approach, which employers need to be mindful of. The relationship with the person who died and the circumstances of the death or religious values and caring responsibilities will all have an impact on the employee, particularly if the death was sudden or traumatic. A calm empathetic approach in all communications from managers will ensure employees feel supported and minimise their anxiety about returning to work.

What other sources of help are available to those who have recently been bereaved?

Acas’ full guidance on Managing bereavement in the workplace is available at: www.acas.org.uk/bereavement. This is helpful for employers and employees. At the back of the guidance we have a list of other charities that can provide help.

 

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