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How to Manage Staff Bereavement

August 20, 2019, 10:32 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Andrew Cowley looks at how leaders should balance practical considerations with empathy when responding to staff bereavement...
How to Manage Staff Bereavement

Whether you are faced with dealing with the passing of a colleague’s parents, in-laws or other family member, a principles-based approach sets us in good stead for managing the scenario.

Crucially, decisions reached here will be spur-of-the-moment ones. If you live your values, your tough choices will be the right ones, as trust, compassion, empathy and respect direct your actions.

Losing a member of your family is tough. However hard-faced and unemotional someone might appear in public, behind that mask is the full range of human emotions. Some people are good at holding it all in, traditional ‘stiff upper lip’ style. Others will struggle to hold back the tears.

Be there

If you genuinely know your colleagues, you can tell who will keep things private and who will be more open about their feelings, but in both cases your support will be appreciated. Offering support alone – the ‘I’m here if you need to talk’ approach – isn’t enough, as that puts the onus on the other party. Proactive leaders will anticipate this.

Asking a colleague in ‘just to talk’ is an effective means of support. Don’t rampage straight in with ‘How are you coping after the death of…?’, as this shows little sensitivity. Try not raising the matter at all. If it comes up in conversation, so be it. The simple act of talking and taking the time to be there may be enough to show your empathy.

There are three stages to consider: the period of illness leading up to the loss; the time between the passing and the funeral; and the time of mourning. The first and last could be of indeterminate time, and herein lies the test of empathy and compassion over cold organisation.

When a colleague comes to you with the news of a terminal illness in the family, is your reaction one of shock at the news, or at how your school is going to be affected by potential staff absence?

Unexpected arrangements

It is at this time that empathy and compassion need to be unpacked from your toolkit, together with a healthy portion of confidentiality. Some people will share the sad news with their colleagues, because this is the comfort blanket they may need, but equally others may want it kept quiet.

Allowing for hospital visits in work time is inevitably going to result in some gossip and some more direct questioning about an absence. Be aware of this and kill the gossip. If you have a strong culture of confidentiality this is easier, but you may have to have a few stiff conversations to shore up the privacy that some circumstances demand.

Have some key people onside, because there are going to be timetable changes and cover issues. Being flexible in planning and being fair to everyone else may need some unexpected arrangements. It is the inflexible leader who allows such tragic circumstances to add unnecessarily to workload.

In the case of a lengthy illness, the final days may be spent in hospital or in a hospice and this is the time to cut your colleague some slack. They may be repaying your support by a full day at work, but if they need to go at half past three each afternoon, let them go. The staff meeting, the display board, the marking they have missed can wait. If your empathy cascades down to your team, others will step in and support with the essential tasks.

People, not pounds

When the time comes, despite some people saying they will be all right, they aren’t going to be all right. An empathetic leader will give time off before and maybe after the funeral.

In the majority of cases, a colleague who loses a family member will have said goodbye to a parent, grandparent or in-law. In the case of parents, there may be no end of legal and probate matters to attend to. Many teachers will live some distance from their home town (or even country) and may need to be away for some time.

Insisting on a return to work isn’t going to help anyone.

Whether it is a week or two that you allow, think of people, not pounds. Your trust and loyalty will be repaid by staff who are looked after.

This brings us to funeral attendance. I have been told of some schools that only permit staff to attend the funerals of immediate relatives and allow only unpaid attendance for other occasions.

Where does this leave us with colleagues who want to attend the funeral of family friends? I have also heard of leave being refused because ‘it would inconvenience others’, which lacks any empathy whatsoever.

Many colleagues are happy to make their own cover arrangements, swapping PPA time or making up time elsewhere, so as not to cause any disruption to the time of others – no ‘inconvenience’ here. For some people, being able to attend a funeral allows for ‘closure’, while for others it is an expectation of their culture. Not being able to say a proper farewell can trigger feelings of guilt. A flexible and thoughtful approach to funeral attendance is therefore an important wellbeing consideration.

School as a refuge

The final stage to consider is probably the most difficult and challenging: the grieving process and recovery. Grief is draining, physically and emotionally. Anyone who has lost a parent or in-law may run on nervous energy for a few weeks and outwardly appear to be holding it all together, but as with any mental health issue the scars are hidden. Keeping an eye on them in an unobtrusive way is a key strategy.

Rather than a school leader taking the prime responsibility, there may be a trusted friend who is better positioned to help and listen; a teacher who began at the same time as their colleague, or maybe someone who has been through a similar experience themselves of late.

Leaving someone to come back without support shows a lack of empathy, though a number of teachers have told me that they had support before their bereavement, but little afterwards. One said, “It was a case of ‘it’s over now, you can get back to work’ and ‘just get over it’ from some staff, and little more than lip service from the head who told me I had taken enough time off.”

Counselling services, or providing the number of the Education Support Partnership, are the very least that can be offered. Think about key dates, such as the anniversary of the passing or birthdays, and how your colleague is going to face the next long holiday, given that school might be a refuge from the pain.

Empathetic school leaders will set themselves a written or digital reminder of these significant times and act upon it. Though it might not seem much, never underestimate the positive impact of a simple yet considered note in a card or a text message to express your sincerest thoughts.

Andrew Cowley is a primary deputy head and Y6 teacher; this article is based on an edited extract from his book, The Wellbeing Toolkit – Sustaining, supporting and enabling school staff, which is available now, published by Bloomsbury.

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