This second blog in our bereavement series, aims to ease and open up conversations between managers and staff about grief and loss. Below, three civil servants share their thoughts on these vital conversations.
Siân and manager Angela, both work in the Information Technology Services (ITS) Directorate at DVLA. They recount their experiences of opening up a conversation after Siân suffered a bereavement last year.
I experienced bereavement during the pandemic on four occasions, but the loss of my auntie was especially hard in October, when I was living alone and not within walking distance of friends and family.
Initially, I found it difficult to interpret my thoughts and feelings, at a time I would normally turn to colleagues for support and a ‘water fountain’ conversation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t available because everyone was working from home.
I hadn’t been working at the DVLA long and had only met my manager, Angela, in person once. This made me feel anxious, thinking ‘what am I going to say?’ and ‘what will she think of me if I say, I need to take time?’
I’ve been a manager of many teams during my 32-year career. Over time, I have dealt with several staff that have experienced the loss of someone close in so many ways that bereavement can strike.
A manager is crucial in helping to support their staff at this difficult time. We have a duty of care to ensure we provide the right support to help reduce stress and anxiety for the bereaved colleague
Siân had just joined the team prior to her bereavement. It was a huge leap of faith for Siân to open up about her caring responsibilities that she faced every day, along with the usual stresses that joining a new team brings.
What made it harder was coping in isolation, due to working from home. I made sure I was available whenever Siân felt she needed to chat or take time out.
In these situations, I feel as a manager, you need to look within yourself and ask, 'what would I want or expect in this situation?' I cannot stress enough just to be there for your staff; from them first sharing news of their bereavement to helping them when they’re ready to return to work.
What I have learnt most from my many experiences as a manager is that it’s ok to admit you don’t always have all the answers in these situations. Never be afraid to seek advice from more experienced colleagues and HR, especially if it’s the first time you’re dealing with a bereavement at work.
Indeed, Siân felt that Angela’s flexibility and consideration ensured she felt supported, at a time when life was already difficult enough.
Ian is a manager in the Cabinet Office and, like Angela, has also supported grieving colleagues. Drawing upon his experience, Ian has five tips to help managers be as open and approachable as possible.
There is no universal response to grief. I’ve witnessed colleagues who find their work acts as a coping mechanism, distracting them and offering structure when other aspects of their life turn upside down. Whilst other colleagues will take longer before they’re ready to return to work. Neither approach is right or wrong. A manager must remember that it’s down to what each individual feels they can personally cope with.
Create a work environment without judgement or expectations. Simply allow your colleague to express their normal emotions, helping them understand that it’s ok to cry and at times, feel anger. It’s a way that they can begin to acknowledge and work through their grief. If your colleagues can trust and confide in you, it has a significant impact on helping those grieving to feel less isolated.
Listen actively. Listen to understand rather than jumping and offering advice or opinions. When a colleague hears and understand their story, it can have a powerful effect on a person’s grieving process, so make sure to get these conversations right.
Make people feel understood. Feeling understood is more helpful than just offering simple advice. But this can only be achieved by truly listening to the grieving colleague, helping them identify what they need.
Let go of any assumptions remember that their grief is individual and unique. We may recognise similarities of our grief in that person’s experience, however, what may have worked for us may not work for them. Don’t assume that you know what is best for someone, instead ask that person what they need.
Grief doesn’t have an expiry date. It can be delayed or reappear out of the blue, perhaps triggered by a birthday or anniversary so ongoing understanding and care are needed to support those who are grieving.
Hopefully the experiences of Siân, Angela and Ian will inspire managers with confidence that an environment in which bereaved colleagues feel open and supported can be created. As Angela said, it's ok to admit that you don’t have all the answers initially.
Thank you for reading.