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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Talking Through Grief - the crucial role of managers

It is important to ease and open up conversations about grief and loss at work

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.

Good to talk: Sian, on her experiences of dealing with bereaved staff

Siân’s Situation

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?’

Angela says a caring manager is crucial to help support their staff in sad times

Angela’s Response

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’s Tips

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.

Moving forward

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.

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  1. Comment by Richard Boyd posted on

    Big believer in this. The crucial thing is recognising the limits of your role as a manager. Your role is not to fix the unfixable, it is to not add to your staff's worries. Listening, signposting to support, check-ins to see how needs are changing over time and being mindful of milestones and anniversaries can make a huge difference.

    There's an increasing range of staff groups and networks and people willing to be a listening ear through peer support and educating others to help equip them with the skills and materials to help their colleagues.

    What would help them is access to training, there's plenty of third sector organisations out there willing to help support that.

  2. Comment by Jaci posted on

    Definitely agree with Ian's comments, its different for everyone. Further bereavements can also bring back previous losses especially if they weren't that long ago. Together with our current difficult situation, coping during COVID19 can be particularly hard. Remember most departments also have MHFA who are there to listen.

  3. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Sian, Angela and Ian for sharing this with us. I am especially sorry Sian to hear of your loss and respect you talking about your experience.

    Unfortunately, my father in law passed away in November, and I not only had to support my wife and her family, but also assist them with the funeral arrangenments and administration during the covid-19 pandemic.

    I was fortunate in that my Managers were both supportive and understanding, and encouraged me to make certain that my family were my primary focus at this challenging time.

    I would agree that everyone deals with grief in different ways, and so for a Manager, the most important thing you can do is simply be there.

    This really can make a significant difference.