Five Meaningful Ways That HR Can Support Grief in the Workplace

The unspoken moments of change that HR are being called to support

The workplace can often be criticised for being an environment with a culture that lacks empathy. Yet the collection of recent seismic challenges endured both globally and in the UK from the coronavirus pandemic, to the outbreak of war in Ukraine, to the passing of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, are serving to bring the topic of grief and how the workplace can better support this crucial aspect of the human experience into greater focus. 

Grief is described in psychology as being the acute pain that accompanies loss. Grief is not only limited to the loss of people, it can also be felt following the loss of a pet, a change in home or family circumstances, such as a divorce or separation. It can also be felt as a result of changes and issues experienced in the workplace itself. 

For every individual, grief can be experienced differently. For some, grief is short-term, termed as acute grief. Grief of this nature can however return unexpectedly at a later point. Yet, for other individuals, it’s possible to experience prolonged or extended grief. This prolonged sense of grief is also known as complicated grief, which can last months or even years.  

The unpredictable nature of grief and the variety of ways it can impact individuals in their home and work life, make this an important factor of the human experience that human resources leaders must make the time to consider. 

The demand placed on HR to respond to challenges, whilst implementing a strategy that will support management with the provisions and tools that facilitate support for employees. Have heightened in conjunction with the priorities of the CHRO. At the same time, developing policies and procedures that can minimise the impact of when an individual experiencing grief takes time away from the organisation for a short or extended period of time. 

For HR practitioners, the challenges of supporting management and leadership teams with the sensitivities that come with employees experiencing any form of grief are complex.

Here we cover five of the meaningful steps that HR can take to support grief in the workplace.

1️⃣ Have a plan for supporting grief in the workplace

The practice of how best to support employees through grief can be one of the most complex and delicate tasks for human resources and business leaders to handle. As such, it’s beneficial for organisations to consider the level of training and support they can provide to line managers as part of their learning and development offering. 

Concerningly research from CIPD identified that only just over half (54 per cent) of employees said they were aware of their employer having a policy or support in place for bereavement. 

An employee may be entitled to special or compassionate leave under their contract of employment

Yet, it is vital to ensure your organisation has a bereavement policy or framework in place and that the support available in terms of bereavement leave, access to an employee assistance programme or counselling services, are clear, reviewed periodically but also communicated well to managers and employees. 

If your organisation is one that hasn’t developed a bereavement policy then turning to the excellent resources provided by both CIPD and ACAS are a strong step forward.

Guidance for line managers compassionate bereavement support | Source: CIPD
⤴️ Download the guidance for line managers compassionate bereavement support | Source: CIPD

2️⃣ Ensure Managers have been appropriately trained

Management training on how to provide grief and bereavement support to employees is a crucial factor. In Sage HR you can add the training an employee needs, or even allow employees to add the training needs they have identified themselves. 

As an employer, it’s vital to remember that there is a legal duty to conduct a health and safety assessment, at the stage of an employee informing the organisation of a bereavement. It’s equally vital that managers have an awareness of this duty, but are also well positioned to communicate the messaging on what will be involved for the employee as a next step, sensitively. Training prompts from HR Management software can help ensure this training is provided in a timely way.

At the point where an employee informs managers they have been bereaved, or of another significant life change. The first step is for managers to sensitively acknowledge the situation, whilst also having an understanding of compassionate language and showing empathy that will support the employee both with sharing their news in a safe space, but to also facilitate the next steps in ongoing support.

The need for leadership development has never been more urgent

Furthermore, training managers on how to consider the impact of bereavement on the employee, their duties along with the context in which they are working, will be an important factor. Whilst at the same time, being prepared to sensitively share with employees immediately connected to the individual, in order to facilitate a handover of any work and help to achieve a degree of business continuity. 

It’s also worth remembering as part of any management training on supporting grief, that it is possible to have an employee vocalise their grief, but also raise concerns about their ability to safely continue carrying out their duties.  

This response in the cycle of grief and change is wholly justified and it’s vital that managers have an understanding of how to take steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the employee, whilst collaborating closely with HR to facilitate a smooth transition to taking time out of the workplace.

3️⃣ Recognise and support the stages of grief

HR professionals, people managers and colleagues alike benefit by learning about and understanding the stages of grief, in order to offer compassion and empathy to those who are experiencing it. 

Kübler-Ross & Kessler outlined the five stages of grief that occur to individuals, which include denial and anger, through to bargaining, depression and eventually acceptance. The stages are not however linear, and it is possible to go back and forth between the stages, over a period of time. 

Kübler-Ross model | Source:
Kübler-Ross model | Source:

Kübler-Ross, in her writing on the research into grief, states that the stages are nonlinear – it’s wholly possible for people to experience the aspects of grief at different times and on a number of occasions, the stages also do not need to happen in a specific order. 

To summarise the stages, these include: 

  1. Denial: When griefing, it’s typical in the early stages to feel numb, some employees may try to carry on like nothing has happened. 
  2. Anger: A completely natural emotion that an employee could express towards the situation or how unfair they feel the situation is.
  3. Bargaining: This is a behaviour that individuals can step into when they’re in pain. The sentiment of wishing that things could have happened differently, or unfolded with a different outcome. 
  4. Depression: The stage of the grieving process that can be intense, debilitating and can also return time and again for employees experiencing grief. The support for this stage of the cycle can be a long term one. 
  5. Acceptance: This final stage of the process is one that can take some time to reach. The important focus for HR in this and the proceeding stages, is to ensure the organisation and managers are providing support. 

4️⃣ Treat people with respect and as adults

In every organisation and at every level of the organisational structure, it’s important to remember that everybody is a unique individual. Each person is made up of a wholly different personality type, with different background and different coping mechanisms. 

As such, part of HR’s role is to empower people managers and line managers with the flexibility to accommodate the needs of individuals with bereavement policies that can flex where necessary. To the extent they can allow individuals to take the time that they need away from work and to choose their return at a time that truly works for them. 

The aim of treating people with respect and as the adults they are, is that you are giving them the choice and the space to heal from the grief in a timeframe that works for them. And that when they return to the workplace, they are doing so at a time that they are genuinely ready for.  

Research suggests that the way in which HR bereavement and sickness policies are interpreted shapes the way employees view their employer and in turn their commitment to the organisation. 

This wider value of treating employees with respect and as adults, in not only times of challenge but more broadly, contributes to the culture and sense of oneness that employees have with the organisation.

5️⃣ Understand that work can be a vital part of the healing process

For many employees who are experiencing a form of grief, work and allowing themselves to become lost in the work they can do, can form a vital part of the healing process.  The critical factor to getting this right, is by management having an openness to be led by the employee on their preferences around what good will look like for them with a return to work. 

Ultimately every individual will experience grief differently, each respective process will be unique and for some that unique process will involve the desire to immerse the self in work they love, around their work colleagues who will be a step removed from the grief they are experiencing. 

Sage HR understands the unique and central position that Human Resources have in the organisation. The availability of time to strategize and support leaders and managers is paramount. Our software has been designed with these in mind, try our productivity boosting features free of charge for 30 days.



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Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.