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Grief during COVID-19: supporting our colleagues to return to work and thrive following loss

Updated Wednesday, 14th October 2020

Even if we have been fortunate enough not to experience loss ourselves during this pandemic, there may be colleagues who have. So, how can we support grieving colleagues during these challenging times? 

What does it mean to grieve? Or to be bereaved? There is variation in how grief and bereavement are understood by different people and cultures. This is influenced by the circumstances surrounding death, types of death, the timeliness of death as well as by individual and familial experiences and the way a society expects people to grieve and respond to loss.

Based on my own experience as a therapist, researcher and based on my own and others’ experience, responses to grief are many and include:

  • Shock
  • Numbness
  • Hopelessness
  • Heartbreak
  • Guilt
  • Sadness
  • Exhaustion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness

This list is not exhaustive but during COVID-19 there are additional consequences when someone dies.

Additional consequences

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  • Disbelief or difficulty in accepting a loved one’s death is greater when people are unable to be physically present either at time of death or at a funeral service after the death.      
  • Individuals may feel guilt and remorse about unwittingly infecting the deceased if they were a health worker or a family member who had been unwell.
  • Family members are left in a liminal state, having been informed of the death, until they are advised of the decision regarding disposal of the body of their loved one.
  • Increased anxiety around death happening to someone else.
  • The lack of compassionate physical touch around the time of death, as well as afterwards, creates additional loss for the bereaved.
  • Grief will be more complicated when family members and significant others grieve without their usual support network and traditional rituals surrounding the death.

As a therapist I often hear from people about how lonely and disenfranchising it is when they experience a death and return to work being surrounded on the one hand with supportive colleagues and yet, by a lack of empathic individuals on the other. There are also situations in which a bereaved colleague feels that they are silenced by others which we will address in due course, so what of the bigger picture?

The bigger picture

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Bereavement is one of the most common factors that impacts employees’ performance in the workplace. At any one point in time, 1 in 10 employees are affected by bereavement and it has been identified as a major life event that can cause or exacerbate mental health conditions, yet according to the CBT bereaved people are being failed by a lack of support in the workplace.

Indeed…

  • One-third of employees who had been bereaved in the past 5 years did not feel they had received a compassionate response from their employer.
  • 4 in 10 felt isolated at work after suffering a loss, with 46% feeling actively avoided.
  • There is a 44% increase in sickness absence following bereavement.
  • 56% of employees would consider leaving their job if their employer failed to provide proper support if someone close to them died.

So clearly there is a need for improved training to support all staff in regular contact with people who have been recently bereaved and this is particularly important for line managers who play a significant part in influencing a grieving employee’s experience of their workplace.

The most senior personnel can feel deskilled in situations of bereavement, and colleagues struggle with what to say and how to behave when someone returns to work.Yet even the most senior personnel can feel deskilled in situations of bereavement, and colleagues struggle with what to say and how to behave when someone returns to work.

Part of the problem is the way we look at grief and our how we think someone should respond to loss.

Psychiatrist William Worden would argue that grief is a process to be worked through and others such as the sociologist Christine Valentine would argue that there is no timetable for grief and a bereaved individual will find ways to continue a bond with those who have died. I know many people do this by remembering the person in a special way on the anniversary of their death, or by keeping an item of clothing such as a scarf worn by the person who had died. So how people grieve will be dependent on so many things, such as the relationship with the person who died, the type of death, the support systems a bereaved individual has in place … and the list goes on and on.

The important thing to remember though is that just as people are different, so too are their needs of support. So what are some of the ways we can support colleagues and ultimately ourselves?

Supporting colleagues

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Bereavement is often viewed as an event at a particular point in time, but it is actually the start of a process whereby the employee will grieve and have to adjust to a changed life over time. Significant occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, Mother’s or Father’s Days, Christmas, or other religious holidays, are therefore times when an employee may be affected, even years after a death. Each individual will be on their own time scale.

What helps?

The individuality and unpredictability of grief requires a flexible response from an employer. Approaching these situations with sensitivity, understanding and flexibility can help support a bereaved employee by reducing the anxiety they may have about returning to work and managing their workload, ultimately minimising the impact on the organisation.

Returning to a supportive working environment following bereavement can be an important aspect of a bereaved employee’s adjustment to their loss.An informed and supportive approach is likely to mitigate the potential for increased absence and decreased productivity, improve staff morale and maintain positive working relationships with those affected. Staff who are well informed and well supported are known to work more effectively and remain loyal to their workplace. There is no doubt that returning to a supportive working environment following bereavement can be an important aspect of a bereaved employee’s adjustment to their loss.

A basic principle for any good employer is to recognise their duty of care for employees’ health and wellbeing in the workplace. Organisations that are prepared, are aware of the issues related to bereavement in the workplace. Having a bereavement policy in place can mitigate the costs of employee grief to all concerned and the likely impact on productivity of both the individual and the business as a whole, striking the right balance between a supportive environment and job accountability.

Also consider the importance of…

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  • Social networks are crucial in managing bereavement where deep connections can form and grow and continue to bind us together.
  • Talk to friends and family.
  • Mental health champion at work.
  • Employee Assistance Programmes.
  • Online communities such as Cruse and MIND.

At the best of times we can feel uncomfortable about what to say when someone you know has been bereaved. But in these unprecedented times it matters more than ever that you reach out to those who are suffering after someone dies, while they are likely to be more isolated than ever.

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