Grieving at work

The thought of going back to work can be overwhelming. Facing your colleagues and difficult conversations is something you might feel like you’ll never be ready for. On the other hand, picking up your old routine might give you some stability. Or maybe you left your job to look after your child and are thinking about looking for something new.

What you should expect from your employer after your child dies

It’s likely that your employer is already aware of the situation but be sure to let them know what you need during this time – how and whether you wish to be contacted, whether you want them to inform your colleagues. You shouldn’t feel pressured into making any decisions about returning so make it clear that you’ll need some time.

Your employer should give you ‘reasonable’ time off work. What is ‘reasonable’ will depend on the situation. Your employer does not have to pay you for this time but lots will offer paid compassionate leave. Check with your work what policies they have in place. Your employer should also accommodate any religious beliefs and customs where practical to do so. Unless they can justify the decision to disallow it, they could be discriminating against you under the Equality Act.

Making the decision to return

Your decision to go back to work will be influenced by different things. Although you might not feel emotionally ready, you might need to for financial reasons. Or you might feel that picking up your work routine could help you deal with your grief, in the same way that it’s often good for children to return to school after a loss.

You might also be experiencing effects such as fatigue, stress and anxiety which can make it difficult to return. Focus is also a big deal. It can feel impossible to retain information or you might catch yourself staring at your screen whilst your mind is completely elsewhere.

Once people see you back at work they expect you to be ok. Meanwhile, I was collapsing in the loos thinking I can’t do this.

The most important thing is that you communicate with your employer about what you need, or what you’re likely to need going forward. It’s their responsibility to demonstrate a duty of care. For example, you could ask about coming back for 2 or 3 days a week to start with, to help you adjust back slowly.

If you have a good relationship with your colleagues, you could try to arrange to meet with them informally before you go back. Having those initial conversations outside of your work environment could help your first day back to feel less daunting.

I returned to work about 6 weeks after Hannah’s death but only went back half days initially for 2 months before going back full time. I found the focus on work whilst I was there beneficial for me as it gave me something else to concentrate on. However, my wife (who had given up work as a childminder when Hannah was first diagnosed) didn’t want to go back into childcare and it took her over a year before she felt she was ready to look for a job.

Simon, dad of Hannah

What you should expect from your employer when you return to work

You and your manager should meet regularly to discuss your needs and any adjustments that could support you. They should also recognise how you have been affected as a family. If you are a single parent, for instance, or have other siblings that need extra support, this could mean they need to review your role. This could be temporary or long-term changes in hours or responsibilities.

If you are experiencing mental health difficulties such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, you could be considered disabled by law. In this case, you are protected by the Equality Act and your work must make reasonable adjustments for you to make it possible for you to return. This could include things like flexible working hours, a modified job role or a higher sickness threshold.

Try to keep talking to your manager so they understand what you need and can be sensitive to your situation. For example, make them aware of any special days in case you need time off or extra support.

How to support yourself

Let people know what you need

Colleagues can give you much better support if they understand what you need at this time. Are you desperate to talk about your child but no one brings it up in case it upsets you? And if you do become upset, would you rather someone acknowledged it and offered you a cup of tea? Maybe you’d rather not talk about it in the workplace at all. Often people are only awkward for fear of doing the wrong thing. You’ll find people will appreciate it if you lead the way.

Don’t expect too much from yourself

Grief can leave you feeling physically and mentally exhausted. It will undoubtedly impact your performance but this is very normal and should be accepted as a natural consequence. If you’ve been away for a significant length of time, the amount to catch up on and tasks ahead of you might feel impossible. Try to set yourself smaller, achievable goals and be open with people about what you feel you can manage.

Take breaks

Make sure you take time away if you need it. Take walks at lunchtime or go and sit in a green space or café with a book. If you have a friend at work, can you share this time with them? It’s also ok if you need to go and sit in your car or the loo and cry for a while.

Be patient

It’s important to keep checking in with how you feel. It will be a lengthy process and things will never really go back to the way they were. It’s just a case of learning to manage it. You’ll grow to learn what things are helpful or not. Keep an open channel of communication with your line manager so you continue to receive the support you need.

Resources for you and your employer

If you’re self-employed

Even if you are self-employed, the same principles apply – think about whether you can continue in the same way. Do you need to reduce your hours or change the way you do things to make it easier for yourself? Maybe you need to set clearer working hours with clients so you have time to switch off at home.

Make sure your projects are manageable and be realistic about what you should expect from yourself.

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