How employers can support bereaved parents in the workplace

Need to know:

  • In addition to upcoming legislation giving a day-one right to bereavement leave, parents suffering the loss of a child should receive long-term support.
  • Counselling and occupational health services can provide internal support structures, as can regular reviews of working practices, and flexible policies.
  • Line managers should be trained to communicate tactfully, and clearly signpost supports, but the employee themselves should be allowed to take the lead.

In April 2020, a new law will come into effect giving working parents the right to two weeks of paid leave if they lose a child under the age of 18. The Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay Regulations, known as Jack’s Law, will help employees who are going through a devastating time.

A day-one right to leave is not enough, however. A survey of parents conducted by stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands in 2018, as part of its Finding the Words campaign, found that four in 10 did not feel that their employers’ communication on the subject was sensitive and appropriate, while 43% reported that no one talked to them about the death of their baby after returning to work.

Employers must ensure that they are offering the right support, and communicating in the right way, to assist bereaved parents in the workplace. 

Long-term policies

While the imminent law offers bereaved parents paid leave to help cope with the loss of a child, employers must think about support in the long-term. 

Clea Harmer, chief executive at Sands, says: “For parents who have suffered the death of a baby, it means that their life will be starting on a completely different level, and their life will never be the same.

“What that means for them is that they need help from their employers to support them in adjusting to this new normal. They’re moving forward into a new, unexpected, unwanted life without their baby. So employers can massively help parents adjust to that.” 

Having codified policies in place, particularly those that can be extended to any bereaved employee, will show a clear commitment to supporting staff.

Supportive benefits 

The loss of a child can have a devastating effect on an employee’s mental health, lasting long past the first weeks, flaring up unexpectedly and making it difficult to focus on work.

Allowing for flexible-working patterns, and putting in place regular reviews of working structures with the grieving employee can ensure that, as far as possible, work fits around a person’s needs. This can also help to establish a fundamentally supportive culture. 

Claire McCartney, resourcing and inclusion adviser at Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says: “[Employers] need to build supportive cultures and ensure that line managers are able to have sensitive conversations with affected employees. They should also think about how they can support bereaved parents through a phased return to work, flexible-working provisions and employee support programmes.

Occupational health benefits, counselling services and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) offer internal avenues of support, but grief is a larger issue that may necessitate external help.

“[Employers] should also signpost to relevant organisations and charities that can support bereaved working parents; this will be particularly important for smaller businesses with limited resources,” says McCartney.

Communicating sensitive issues

Discussing the sensitive issue of bereavement can be difficult for employers to approach; for this reason, many fall into the trap of avoiding it altogether, leaving employees on their own. When a bereaved employee returns to the workplace, employers must actively show them that support is available, and recognise the struggle they are experiencing.  

Line managers are the first point of contact in most instances, so must be trained adequately and fully equipped to understand how to tactfully approach sensitive issues. They must also take the lead from the employee themselves.

Harmer says: “What is really important for employers is to understand that this isn’t about getting people back into the right state to work back to normal again, it’s about helping them move forward in a new space in a new context.

“It’s also important to discuss how this is communicated to fellow employees; it’s really important [because] some people that lose a child may want to tell people and others may not, while some may just want an email being sent out.” 

Communicating effectively about the death of a child is, therefore, a case of facilitating conversations, marking out time and space for the employee to be open if they wish, and signposting relevant supports. It is important that employers do not assume how individual employees wish to be supported. 

As Harmer concludes: “Supporting bereaved parents in the workplace is an [issue] that often goes unnoticed. Speaking to parents, and not making them feel isolated when they return from leave can go a long way.”