When hard times hit staff

By Andrea Chipman

Employees coping with the death of a loved one or a serious illness in the family may need time, space, and leave from work. Experts advise how to assess leave policies and offer support.

Respond with sympathy and empathy. How an employer relates to workers at the most difficult points in their lives can determine the level of loyalty employees will show in the future. "When an employee is dealing with a loss is a moment when the employer can show up in a way that keeps the employee engaged for a lifetime," said David Kessler, founder of Grief.com and an expert on healing and loss. "That's the time the employer can show they care not just about an employee's productivity but about their life."

Provide paid and unpaid time off. Some hardships, such as a sick relative or an employee's own illness, can present staffing challenges to employers. Depending on the particulars, the Family and Medical Leave Act often permits significant unpaid time off. Many firms allow employees to use paid time off or take additional unpaid leave on top of the immediate bereavement allowance. Look into employee assistance programs to provide help to the employee and their family.

Be flexible. If an employee loses a close family member such as a parent, spouse, or child, he or she may need a few weeks to deal with logistics such as arranging a funeral or seeing to legal matters, as well as coping with the immediate emotions of the loss. Bereavement leave may also need to be spread out beyond the first few days following a loss. "Employees may not need the time immediately," said Carole Walford, chief clinical officer for national hospice and end-of-life care charity Hospice UK. "It's about valuing your workforce and working with them individually."

Prepare managers. Line managers are the ones likely to have initial meetings with employees in crisis, so teaching them how to address personal losses and hardships sensitively but practically is crucial. Consider training managers ahead of time so they'll know how to assess this type of situation. "There is a need for line managers to have the skills set to support their teams," Walford said. "This can be through a well-timed conversation, by asking open-ended questions, or to know when simply to listen and then schedule to revisit, once managers and employees have had time to reflect."

Recognize the grieving process is open-ended. Even after bereavement leave has ended, the grieving process may not be over. But this does not mean the employee cannot function well with the right support. "There is no timeline — grief is as unique as a fingerprint," Kessler said. Some employers may hire another staff member to help out or look for ways to divide the work among other employees, said Susan Heathfield, a Michigan-based management consultant. "Most are willing to help in the short term if they see an end in sight," Heathfield said. "If no endpoint exists, hire."

Though no one wants to see an employee struggle, having practices and procedures in place can help valued staff make their way through some of their toughest times.

— By Andrea Chipman, a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.

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