Guidance on good leadership during bereavement and complex grief

Good leadership is at the heart of how you support people in the face of bereavement. In particular, the advent of COVID-19 has brought ideas of compassionate leadership to the fore. In a recent article for the King’s Fund, Why compassionate leadership matters in a crisis, Suzie Bailey and Michael West suggest that compassionate leadership is one of the most potent ways in which people can deal with what feel frightening and overwhelming.

This means paying attention to staff, truly listening to them and hearing the anxieties, stresses, and grief associated with bereavement. This is also about modelling good adaptive leadership when you’re working with uncertainty and complexity, and where you need to support and enable other people, facilitating actions and modelling leadership as something that can be practised by anyone, whatever their role or grade. Exceptional leadership for exceptional times summarises what this leadership can look like in practice.

It’s important to remember that everyone deals with death and grief differently, and each member of staff’s needs will be different. Supporting a member of staff can help them feel valued and reduce their stress or anxiety. Research also shows being a supportive line manager can avoid or reduce sick leave, keep a good working relationship and keep the workplace productive.

Below are some practical tips for holding conversations with colleagues:

When a member of staff tells you about a death of someone close to them

– Offer your condolences

– Assure them they do not need to come to work if they do not want to, and make it clear that work should come second

– Ask how they’d like to keep in touch

– If appropriate, ask if there’s any important work they need someone else to cover

If someone is upset, they might not be able to talk for long or they might ask someone else to contact you on their behalf. Communicating in a calm, empathetic way can help employees feel supported, and help ease their anxiety about returning to work. Speak to your HR team to ensure that any compassionate leave or time off is in accordance with policy and recorded correctly on ESR.

When you get in touch with a bereaved member of staff, it’s good practice to ask

– How they are

– How they’d like to be in contact while they’re off, for example by phone or email, and how often

– If they want you to let others know about the death

– If they want to be contacted by others from work, for example to offer their support or condolences

– If they need any information or support from you, and signpost to any support that’s available to them

– If they’ve thought about returning to work, if appropriate

When you are concerned about a colleague

There is a tragic reality that some of us will have concerns about colleagues at risk of harming themselves or taking their life by suicide. Flags to be aware of include communicating that they are feeling much worse, saying they would ‘rather not be here’. You might be aware that they have considered suicide previously or have ideas about how they would kill themselves. It can also be more subtle including appearing restless and agitated, not wanting to talk to people, or not coping with everyday tasks.

It is important to remain calm and not panic.

– If you are worried someone may be in immediate danger, call the emergency services

– If you are worried about the person but do not think they are in immediate danger encourage them to talk about their feelings and to seek help

– Asking simple, direct questions can help. This includes asking someone whether they are having suicidal thoughts. Ask open questions, give them time to respond and try not to judge

– Make sure you get support as well. Caring for someone else who is suicidal can be very emotionally draining. Remember, it’s ok to ask for help!

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