Supporting Employees Through Bereavement

Supporting Employees Through Bereavement

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is hard enough but when you heap workplace pressure onto the grieving process it may make the challenge insurmountable for some employees. On the contrary, ensuring you have a well-designed and consistently applied policy on bereavement increases the likelihood of staff returning to the workplace after suffering a loss.

Compassionate Friends Victoria in partnership with the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement have developed a set of guidelines to inform employers wanting to better support employees going through bereavement and grief. Their 10 top tips are summarised below.

Understand bereavement

Managers don’t need to be bereavement experts, however it is good practice for employers and managers to have an understanding so they can support staff when necessary. As an employer you may like to consider:

  • Arranging professional development/training in how they can support employees through bereavement.
  • Ensuring staff members have a clear understanding about things that are appropriate or inappropriate to do or say to a colleague following bereavement.
  • Compiling a list of resources and useful links for staff to review and access when needed.

Develop a bereavement policy

Preparing a bereavement policy is no different to preparing a grievance or workplace accidents policy. In preparing a policy for your organisation you should consider:

  • Your legal obligations What support you are prepared to offer an employee who has lost someone.
  • The arrangements currently in place.
  • Whether employees use other forms of leave (sick leave, carers leave etc) following bereavement if they require extra time off work.
  • Whether you can be flexible in your approach. For example can colleagues donate leave to a bereaved employee?
  • Whether you are willing to make provisions for extended leave.
  • Making the policy clear and accessible to staff so they know exactly what they are entitled to and how to access support.
  • Whether it is worthwhile offering an EAP program for staff.

After a death

Following the immediate death of a loved one many employers may feel hesitant to contact an employee for fear of intruding. However, acknowledging the loss and offering support and understanding is important.

While it may not be immediately obvious, even brief contact will be appreciated and remembered by a bereaved employee and reminding your employee that there is is no pressure or expectation on the work front will give them one less thing to worry about.

There is a range of different ways you can take action to support employees following bereavement. These include:

  • Sending flowers and a card on behalf of the organisation and colleagues
  • Staying in contact to send condolences and assure them there is no pressure to return to work
  • If appropriate, attend the funeral
  • Reassure them that their workload will be managed until they are ready to return
  • Checking in on a regular basis to offer support
  • If appropriate, offer support to other employees affected by the bereavement.

Return to work

Returning to work after bereavement can be very difficult. There are many measures employers can take to reassure employees and to ensure their transition back to work us supported, realistic and workable, for example:

  • Ask the employee what would help them on their first day back.
  • Communicate with other staff and direct colleagues and remind them to be sensitive.
  • Offer a return to work plan that is gradual and flexible and be realistic about your expectations by trying to put yourself in their shoes.
  • Ease them into the workload so it isn’t overwhelming.
  • Be present and available and remind them your door is always open.


Maintaining open and honest lines of communication is an important aspect of managing bereaved employees. Try to:

  • Stay in regular contact while the employee is out of the office by phone or email.
  • Nominate a manager/staff member as a direct point of contact for the employee and ensure all communications are delivered through this person.
  • After they return to work be thoughtful and honest and try not to make assumptions about what they may/may not need. It’s best to ask.
  • Check in regularly to see how they are doing and remind them about the support available.

Be a good listener

When someone is grieving, sometimes the best support you can offer is to be a good listener:

  • Let your employee know your door is always open to them and be prepared to listen and accept strong emotions.
  • Don’t feel obliged to offer any advice sometimes just listening is sufficient and no one is expecting you to ‘fix’ things for them.
  • If your employee would prefer to talk to a colleague, make that option available and give them time out of their day-to-day schedule to meet for this purpose.
  • Consider offering all staff access to an EAP and/or bereavement support service.

Be compassionate

Ensuring your organisation has a culture of compassion will help ease an employee back to work:

  • Try and foster a culture of compassion and understanding at all times.
  • Remember that you’ll need to offer support beyond the first few weeks of bereavement and this can be easy to forget.
  • Take care of yourself knowing this makes it easier to support other staff and sets a great example for other staff.

Be respectful

When interacting with employees who have lost a loved one it is important to be respectful of their needs, style of grieving and situation:

  • Give them space to grieve in their own way and in their own time and avoiding comparing one employee’s loss with another.
  • Be respectful of their privacy.
  • Don’t avoid them, you may feel awkward and like you don’t know what to say but leaving them alone is worse.
  • Don’t take anger or strong words personally, grief is an emotional rollercoaster and someone processing a range of emotions may take them out on whoever is nearby.

Be as flexible as you can

Offer options for flexible work following bereavement can make a significant difference to employees. Suggestions include:

  • Offering an unrestricted amount of time until they return to work.
  • Allowing flexibility in hours for example altered start and finish times, a temporary reduction in hours and/or job share.
  • Helping the employee organise and manage the leave arrangements
  • Being accommodating when they need to take time off at short notice
  • Organising a return to work strategy that provides structure for the above suggestions.

Be supportive

It may seem obvious but it is worth remembering that grief doesn’t have a set time frame and you’ll need to be supportive over the long term. If you are responsible for managing a bereaved employee keep the following in mind:

  • Be encouraging on a daily basis and remember for those managing grief every day is a challenge.
  • Provide ongoing support and encourage workmates to do the same.
  • Consider offering an EAP to ensure continued support over the long term.

For more information on how to be a compassionate employer click here.

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