Coronavirus and return to work: five ways to support bereaved employees


During lockdown Bupa saw a 40% increase in enquiries to its EAPs from companies seeking advice on how to support bereavement and loss. Alaana Woods and Erika Gati-Howe outline some approaches that may help, and which OH can communicate to managers.

Covid-19 is the biggest global crisis we’re likely to see in our lifetime – affecting people personally, collectively and professionally. Sadly, as the pandemic has progressed, more people will be dealing with grief.

Losing a loved one is always hard. However, due to social isolation measures, people are experiencing bereavement differently. Many will be unable to attend funerals or be physically comforted by their friends and family outside their household, something which can be pivotal to the grieving process.

About the authors

Alaana Woods is commercial director at Bupa Health Clinics and Erika Gati-Howe is a Bupa EAP counsellor

If one of your employees loses a loved one, it can be difficult to know how to help, especially if they’re still working from home. However, providing emotional and practical support at this time will help them, their family and other colleagues within your organisation.

With this in mind, it’s even more important employers are aware of how to support colleagues during grief.

At Bupa Health Clinics we provide Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) for more than 334,000 colleagues from 2,500 businesses across the UK. In the first few months of lockdown (April to May 2020 compared to the same period the year before), we saw a 40% increase in queries from companies seeking advice and guidance on how to support their teams with bereavement and loss.

It is clear, then, that employers will increasingly be needing to help and offer support to employees after the death of a loved one, whether this is due to Covid-19 or not. To that end, we have created a managers’ guide, to help managers recognise grief and support their team members, whether they are working remotely and returning to the office.

But we also suggest the following five valuable tips that occupational health can be passing on to managers to help them better support employees dealing with grief:

1. Recognise and understand the stages of grief. There are five stages of grief from denial and anger, to depression, bargaining, and acceptance. This is not a linear process and people can dip in and out of these stages. It is important to recognise that each person grieves in a very different way and at different speeds.

Some people find it beneficial to write down their thoughts and feelings as a way of being able to express them, some find it easier to speak about them, others might use different creative ways and there will be people who may find it difficult to talk about how they feel.

2. Ensure managers know their organisation’s policies and support systems. Companies will normally have policies in place for bereavement, which may have been updated for the current situation. Ensuring managers know and understand these policies will help them to provide the right guidance.

Many companies may also have trained staff members or faith-based and other employee support groups who are able to speak with an employee. They may also have EAPs offering confidential advice and support. It is common employees may not want to share their feelings with their manager or members of the same team, so make sure individuals are being told about and encouraged them to use these services if helpful.

3. Understand where work comes in someone’s grieving process. For some people, work is an important coping mechanism. It can be a welcome distraction – some people find it provides some normality and routine, even when that is only logging on remotely.

However, alongside that, it is important managers to understand that a quick return to work doesn’t mean it is “business as usual”. Occupational health can work with managers on solutions such as a phased or part-time return – whatever the employee might find useful and manageable.

4. Be realistic. It is important managers limit their expectations of those experiencing grief and don’t assume they’ll be able to perform at the same level straight away – even if they’re keen to get back to work. As already highlighted, people grieve at different speeds and in different ways. It may be weeks or months before they’re able to perform at the level they once did.

5. Consider resourcing and support within the wider team. It is often worth considering what further support can be made available to the employee and the wider team, and, if felt appropriate, making the employee part of this discussion. This will give the colleague affected the chance to take time off if needed, while helping others manage in their absence.

Bupa’s A Guide to Bereavement can be downloaded at

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