Bereavement has affected more people than usual over the past year amid the turmoil of Covid-19: the latest weekly death rate for England and Wales is still 13% above the five-year average. With many employees still working from home and having lost some of their social networks, coping with grief is perhaps harder than ever. Towergate Health & Protection suggests ways in which employers can support their employees in this situation.

Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health & Protection, says: “Covid has brought bereavement and grief to the fore. While everyone deals with grief differently there are certain practical and emotional resources that can be of help across many different circumstances. For employers, it is not only about helping the individual directly affected, but also building skills among their colleagues so that they too can cope and offer support.”

Understanding the process

Having an understanding of the grieving process is helpful both for the employee affected and for those around them. The grief curve or Kubler-Ross Model shows the five common stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. People will go through these at a different speed, depth, and even order, but there is a similar overall process for most people. Having an emotional understanding of the process is a big step towards helping those who are bereaved and to coming to terms with the situation oneself.

There are also practical steps that can be taken and these are often appreciated by colleagues who are not sure how best to be of help.

Talk about it

While it is often hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving, not talking about it can be worse. Simply acknowledging the situation can go a long way in helping someone feel supported.

Create mental health first aiders

Training is available for employees to become first aiders in mental health. These courses give people the knowledge of how best to approach a colleague struggling with a range of mental health and emotional conditions, including grief. They will be taught to listen, to be non-judgemental, and to signpost support, encouraging colleagues to seek further help if needed.

Open up lines of communication

Line managers create a gateway between the employee and the company. It is important to build an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing issues with their manager, this enables the business to understand the pressures and concerns an employee may be dealing with both inside and outside of work. As such, it’s important that line managers have training on how to deal with staff bereavement so they know how to help, for instance, being able to signpost to relevant support.

Provide information

If the mental health first aider, line manager, a colleague, or the employee themselves feels that further assistance is required, then it is important to clearly signpost the options. Employers should make information easily accessible on how and where to obtain further help. It is also important to offer a variety of strategies, as different people will prefer to seek help in different ways. These may include assistance over the telephone, in person, through reading materials, or even via an app.

Health and wellbeing benefits

Many health and wellbeing benefits either aim at directly assisting employees suffering bereavement or include added-value benefits that can be help at this time.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) may be embedded within other health, wellbeing and protection benefits or provided on a standalone basis. It is important for employers to make their staff aware of such support. An EAP will be able to provide services like counselling or support a return to the workplace. EAPs may provide crisis helplines if a number of staff are grieving the loss of a colleague.

If bereavement triggers a mental health condition, then health, wellbeing and protection benefits may allow employees to be referred to a psychiatrist or for in-patient support. Mental health pathways have responded to the increased need and have been enhanced: they provide routes to better mental health, and can offer a helpline and guide employees through the additional support available.

Keep up to date

It is of course good practice to ensure employee details are kept up to date, but it is also sensible to ensure all authorisations and expressions of wish are still valid, this will help any payments via employer-sponsored life assurance to loved ones to go through swiftly and easily.

Remain flexible

The process of grief may follow similar patterns but there is no set timescale and everyone will grieve in their own way. Remember that grief may lessen with time but it can still affect people many years down the line, especially at key anniversaries. The key for employers is to be aware of how their employees may be feeling and to have strategies in place to help if and when required.

Having access to support set up before the need arises means that employees will receive help quickly when it is needed. Not everyone will know the right thing to say to someone who is grieving, but everyone can know where to find someone who can help. Signposting to charities, support within health, wellbeing and protection benefits, such as employee assistance programmes, virtual GPs and various forms of mental health support services, will mean that employees have access to the right support, at the right time.

Brett Hill
Towergate Health & Protection combines a whole of market, independent insurance broking service for businesses and individuals throughout the world with specialist health and wellbeing advice and solutions. The company aims to help clients manage their health risks and improve the wellbeing of themselves, their families and employees, resulting in a healthy, motivated and productive workforce.