Insufficient support for bereaved employees returning to work

12 April 2019

Workers who have returned to work following the death of a loved one are not receiving enough support from their employers, new research suggests.

A new review by researchers from Canterbury Christ Church University, published in the latest edition of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s (IOSH) Policy and Practice in Health and Safety journal, has examined the experiences of bereaved workers returning to work and the support they receive from managers.

The review shows that while various employers tried to show sympathy and flexibility to bereaved employees, others were found to be less responsive, with certain areas of workplace support being reported as “insufficient”.

Several studies reported that there was no acknowledgement of the difficulties following bereavement that they faced. They described struggling to cope with potentially stressful and demanding workplace situations such as being required to focus in work meetings soon after experiencing a loss.

Mary Ogungbeje, OSH Research Manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, said: “In workplaces there may be a lack of guidance on how employers could support their employees during the grieving period and the return to work process. Managers can struggle to bring the subject up and may avoid the topic out of fear of saying something insensitive.

“It is important managers understand how an employee is feeling after returning to work. Both an organisation and the individual employee can benefit from having good policies in place. Being able to use discretion, such as providing the option to work from home, flexible working hours, and reviewing workloads and deadlines, empowers managers to be able to best support the bereaved employee.”

Leanne Flux is a PhD candidate in Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University. She undertook the literary review as part of her PhD thesis.

She said: “The aim of this global literature review was to explore how employers were found to respond to bereaved employees. It has offered an insight into what support is received and what may be lacking.

“We found a lack of response specifically in long-term support, a lack of clarity around how much time is allowed off work for the bereaved, a lack of clear HR guidance in the way forward and a lack of understanding in how to performance manage a bereaved employee.  

“By understanding bereaved employees’ experiences of workplace support, will not only create awareness and knowledge of what best practice support looks like to them, but may assist to develop individualized care and support for employees’ who may be experiencing mental distress in the workplace.”

As part of the research, an electronic literature search explored workers' experiences between 1995 - 2018. 

Inclusion criteria consisted of the shared experiences of adult employees who had been bereaved or taken a leave of absence due to mental health, and their perception of how they were treated in the workplace during their time of absence and upon their return.

The review found that many of those experiencing the death of a loved one are required to resume work responsibilities within several days of experiencing their personal loss.

Bereaved employees commonly cited that one of their biggest concerns, and most helpful ways of supporting them, was to receive time off work with pay.

Other helpful management responses included flexible working hours, reduced workloads and taking over some of the bereaved employees work duties or responsibilities.

The acknowledgement of the impact of personal trauma and showing sensitivity and a listening ear was also perceived as particularly supportive.

Return to work and rehabilitation is an important wellbeing element within the context of any occupational safety and health management system. IOSH is currently developing new guidance to be launched in summer 2019, taking the key messages of this research into consideration.

The paper, ‘How do employers respond to employees who return to the workplace after experiencing the death of a loved one? A review of the literature’, appeared in the journal Policy and Practice in the Health and Safety, which is published by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health.

The paper is available here:


Notes for editors:

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is the world’s leading chartered professional body for people responsible for safety and health in the workplace. We have more than 47,000 members in over 130 countries.

We act as a champion, adviser, advocate and trainer for safety and health professionals working in organisations of all sizes. Our focus is to support our members in their efforts to create workplaces that are safer, healthier and more sustainable.

Our shared objective is a world where work is safe and healthy for every working person, every day. Through our 2017-2022 strategy, WORK 2022 – shaping the future of safety and health, we will seek to enhance the occupational safety and health profession, build strategic collaborative partnerships across industry and strengthen our influence globally through impactful research and development.

Canterbury Christ Church University is a modern university with 16,000 students across Kent and Medway. Its courses span a wide range of academic and professional subject areas.

  • Over 94% of our UK undergraduates were in employment or further studies six months after completing their studies*.
  • We are one of the South East’s largest providers of education, training and skills leading to public service careers.

*2015/16 Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey


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Last edited: 16/05/2019 09:55:00