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Written By
Madhumita Srinivaasa

How (and how not) to support bereaved employees, according to psychologists

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Table of Content

Table of Contents

Did you know that companies in Singapore are not required by law to provide compassionate leave? Even in organisations that offer compassionate leave, returning to work two to five days after losing a loved one can seem insurmountable, impacting an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing profoundly. 

The need to support bereaved employees cannot be overstated. Apart from days off, employers can institute additional support measures, while managers and team members create a compassionate and empathic environment for those who are grieving. 

Whether you are an HR professional, a company leader, or a coworker, below are some ways to support bereaved employees in a sensitive time.

Voices of bereaved employees 

A study by NTUC LearningHub revealed that 60% of respondents in Singapore are uncomfortable with discussing issues with mental health out of fear that they would be “perceived differently”. 

Fearing that their vulnerability would affect their performance, bereaved employees could very well experience “stifled grief”. This condition, highlighted in a study by the academic journal Death Studies, occurs when employees deny their expression of pain and prolong mourning in a bid to appear unfazed at work.

Psychologist and Founder of Wand Inspiration Wendy Chua describes the inner turmoil of a grieving person:

“With any loss, we have a sense of abandonment. Feeling abandoned can affect our relationships, even studies and work. If we feel like no one cares about us, we may think, “Why should I care about anyone else? Why should I care about myself? We feel unloved and unlovable.”     

Now imagine an employee sitting at their desk with all these thoughts. How would they like employers, managers, and fellow team members to help?

Adjust 

Elizabeth, who lost her mother two years ago, opened up about her grief on LinkedIn:

“I wish I’d known how more people processed losing a parent, and what kind of concessions could be given at work. To employers, there should be more options for longer paid and unpaid bereavement leave. Given the cost of recruiting and hiring someone new, and established practices with maternity leave, I believe this is feasible.”

Increasing the number of bereavement leave days provided can help employees attend to their personal and emotional needs, and return to work more focused. More importantly, it shows that the organisation is committed to supporting its employees during challenging times, ultimately creating a more positive workplace culture.

Accommodate

The loss of a family member can be life-altering. Perhaps the person who passed away used to drop them off at work, cook for them, or care for their children. Life, as the bereaved employee knew it, has changed. 

This newfound reality will require adjustment, and managers can help by asking what they need to restart. Do they require flexible working hours and locations? Do they need to take a couple of days off to sort out alternative childcare arrangements? Do they need to speak with a counsellor? 

“Titrating the work in is important as is checking in on the employee,” says College of Allied Educators Professor Chong Pao-er. Managers can collaborate with employees on a reduced workload that accounts for their emotional exhaustion. This will take some pressure off their shoulders insofar as the employee is reassured about their contribution and that fellow team members understand.

Acknowledge

While Elizabeth wished that team members had asked how they could support her, rather than saying “I’m sorry” and quickly moving on, people around bereaved employees may not be confident in doing so. 

“No one expects those who are untrained to always say the right thing, but avoiding what happened can feel isolating and invalidating,” says Pao-er. Below are some messages that managers and team members can get across in conversation: 

“My door is always open”

In a bid to support bereaved employees, some might say “at least they are not in pain anymore” or “they are in a better place now”. These statements, while well-meaning, can invalidate their pain and imply that the bereaved should stop feeling hurt soon. The following statements, on the other hand, are more helpful:

  • “I’m here if you need anything.”
  • “It’s okay to feel this way. Take as much time as you need.”
  • “This must be a very difficult time for you. How are you coping today?”
  • “Today might not be the day, but I’ll be happy to listen whenever you want to talk about it.

Reaching out while respecting their privacy is key. If they are willing to share, assure them that you will keep the content confidential. When in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to ask tactfully.

“Ask the grieving colleague how they want to be treated. Have lunch or coffee with them. Talk, even laugh and be friendly,” says Wendy Chua.

“It’s not all work”

Learning to manage a new reality without their loved one can be a long and complex journey. Rather than telling bereaved employees that “time will heal everything”, let them know you care about their healing by showing them it’s not all business. That means asking them about their wellbeing even when there are no work-related matters to discuss.

For example, “How are you doing today? I wanted to discuss this task with you” is vastly different from 

  • “Hey, do you want to grab a coffee downstairs after the meeting?” 
  • “Hey, how have you been doing? Just wanted to check in on you.”

As employees may feel anxious about underperforming, managers can show their support by saying: 

  • “Whenever you think you need a break or it’s overwhelming, do let me know.”
  • “Your getting through these times is more important than anything else.”

When work becomes a coping mechanism 

Even as employers, managers, and team members support bereaved employees and encourage them to take it slow and easy, it isn’t uncommon for them to use work as a crutch for their grief. While distraction can be helpful at times, said Intellect’s clinical psychologist Linda Rinn, making room for moments of grief is key. Naturally, working all day long leaves little time for them to process the loss.

Furthermore, they run the risk of burnout. According to Pao-er, “many clients throw themselves into work only to burn out as it takes both physical and emotional effort to maintain the distraction.”

Managers can mitigate this by:

  • Prioritising quality over quantity in their reduced workload. It is healthier to focus deeply on a smaller task and process their grief with the remaining time.
  • Look out for signs of burnout. They could be clocking more hours than usual, showing signs of physical exhaustion as well as significant weight gain or loss. 
  • Assure them when they have been stronger than required. This could sound like, “I see that you’re working passionately despite all the pain you are going through. Please don’t hesitate to slow down if you need to”. 

Support bereaved employees with Intellect 

Emotional availability is very valuable to employees experiencing grief and loss. Something could trigger them in the middle of a task at work, and they may suddenly find themselves overwhelmed with emotion. Yet, there are limitations to what employers, managers, and coworkers can do without professional training in mental healthcare. 

Intellect offers a lifeline in times like this. Waiting for an appointment that is four to six weeks away can be difficult for bereaved employees, which is why we offer a 24/7 helpline and on-demand appointments in 12 languages across 20 countries. What’s more, they can access an unlimited number of sessions with our coaches, counsellors, and psychologists. Since grieving has no timeline, your employees can embark on their healing journey on their own terms and at their own pace. 

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