Many people assume that when an individual experiences a bereavement, the only appropriate professional support is counselling. This working assumption can lead HR to feel constrained to rely solely on the employee assistance program (EAP) and can miss the important benefits a professional coach can offer.
Unresolved grief has proven links to poor mental health (https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/possible causes/). Research by Deloitte suggests poor mental health can cost UK employers up to £45 billion a year (https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/press releases/articles/poor-mental-health-costs-uk-employers up-to-pound-45-billion-a-year.html). In South Africa, the social and economic costs too are high (https://www.erexchange.co.za/mental-health-in-the-south-african-workplaces/).
These research studies predate the current pandemic and will almost certainly increase, so the impact of grief and mental health is likely to be a top priority for businesses and HR in 2021 and beyond. Indeed, this year the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has written an open letter to the UK government for improved paid bereavement leave provision. CIPD published a long-overdue detailed HR guide to supporting bereavement in the workplace (https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/culture/well-being/bereavement-support).
The role of coaching in this context and how professional coaching can proactively support grieving employees remains unclear or misunderstood.
This article will debunk the myth that grief always or solely needs counselling. I will explore and clarify the ways in which coaching and counselling can intersect and co-exist, and will make some practical suggestions about how HR can proactively support employees who are grieving with a simple and holistic bereavement framework.
In December 2010, I was a busy HR Director leading a large international team and working daily with the CEO and board. My mum unexpectedly collapsed and died. In total, I took three weeks of paid compassionate leave, before inevitably needing to return to work and function while still in the grip of grief. The support from my manager was great, but the organisation did not have a framework in place to support my longer-term bereavement needs. I was offered counselling support, but instinctively preferred the option of coaching.
In hindsight, I realise I instinctively performed a mental health checklist on myself and I was not in a mental health crisis. For a couple of months, I had difficulty sleeping and lost my appetite, but with support from my general practitioner, family, and friends I functioned reasonably well.
What I wanted from my employer was to help me continue to do my job. I knew that doing that would be a much longer-term support. I honestly did not know where to start with piecing my life back together. My world had crumbled, and I felt the worst I had ever felt. However, I was battered and bruised, rather than broken beyond repair.
Since then, having trained as a professional coach and now specialising in working with HR, coaching grief and loss, and guiding HR on how to support grief in the workplace, I have come to realise that counselling and coaching can and should co-exist, particularly in relation to grief.
The suitability of coaching for those who are bereaved depends on two things – the specific circumstances of the individual AND the professional capacity of the coach.
From the perspective of the coachee:
We know that mental health exists on a spectrum and that there is no single characteristic that definitively determines good or poor mental health. It is a blend of factors that we use to place ourselves somewhere along a continuum. The individual can determine whether a coach, or a counsellor, or sometimes both, might be appropriate for them. This realisation is based on a self-assessment of their own mental health and wellbeing, often in conjunction with a GP or qualified medical professional.
From a coach perspective:
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) Code of Ethics clearly states that a coach must always operate within the boundaries of their own professional competence, contract clearly within that context, and take responsibility for any shift in the coaching relationship, with an eye always on where a referral to another professional might be more appropriate for the coachee. While the individual coachee might have determined that coaching is appropriate, the coach might determine that they are not professionally equipped to work in that area and with that individual. However, when the individual seeks support to function as best they can while grieving, coaching can partner with the person to make being a productive at work possible.
How can HR support the employee?
A first step for HR to take is to provide mental health training and information so as to enable employees to determine the most appropriate support for them, based on an informed self-assessment of their own emotional, cognitive, physical, and behavioural wellbeing.
The next step is to recognise that boundaries of coaching and counselling often overlap. Counselling is typically more appropriate where the individual has reached a point where they are in crisis or they are struggling to cope with their day-to-day life, and over a relatively sustained period, not just the first few weeks of grief. It is worth remembering that coaches are trained to work with the whole person, to ultimately enable the coachee to tend to his/her/their goals which may include his/her/their personal and mental challenges. Many professional coaches are trained to be aware of how to coach in the context of mental health issues.
In the case of grief, a blended approach of coaching and counselling can work very well. The individual receives holistic support by working in tandem with both a coach and a counsellor. In this scenario, the individual might work with a counsellor specifically about managing the impact and trauma of the grief event. With a coach they might work in relation to the emotional impact of the grief in specific situations, such as tangible ways to manage their transition back to work after bereavement leave, with a personalised back to work plan.
For a simple framework to support bereavement in the workplace, I suggest a timeline approach across three critical phases:
1. Immediate – crisis support
Timeframe: First few days and weeks
Provisions: Unconditional support to deal with the emotional shock, physical impact and logistical practicalities including paid bereavement leave. Support from managers trained to manage the conversations and logistics sensitively, such as redistribution of workload and how to stay in contact.
2. Short-term – adjustment support
Timeframe: First few weeks when the employee returns to work
Provisions: Return to work bereavement coaching to support bereaved employees in the context of their professional life, including specialist guidance and support to return to work safely and effectively. Also coaching for managers, to provide ongoing support.
3. Longer-term – ongoing mental health support
Provisions: Ensure that bereavement support is integrated within a wider well-being framework, including emotional awareness of bereavement and mental health in management skills training, and encouraging a culture of open conversations on all mental health issues, including grief.
Above all, it is useful to remember that all grief is unique, and a range of support is likely to be appropriate, including counselling, coaching, and other mental health benefits and provisions.
In South Africa, investing in coaching to manage bereavement in the workplace is still new. Mostly, support is provided through wellness programs and community support programs as offered by SADAG, Hospice, and others. What coaches can offer is their expertise in accompanying employees to cope with, and then learn to live and work productively despite having lost the life that they once knew. 2020 has been a year where almost every employee has experienced a sense of loss and bereavement given the widespread changes to the workplace as a result of lockdown and new ways of working. HR has a significant role to play in harnessing the resourcefulness that coaching offers to support employees remain productive while grieving and to maintain mental health and well-being during these challenging times.
If you need support on your organisation’s coaching journey, do contact us at ICF and our team of volunteers in South Africa will be happy to help.
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organization leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 35,000-plus members located in more than 140 countries and territories work toward common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and upholding the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organizations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organizations, communities and the world through coaching.
ICF South Africa is a Chartered Chapter of ICF with 443 members (January 2021). Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gemma Bullivant FCIPD PCC (ICF) is an experienced HR Director, HR Consultant and Accredited ICF Coach with over 25 years’ corporate HR and coaching experience. With a Masters in Applied Positive & Coaching Psychology and specific training in Grief, Loss and Change, Gemma offers a range of HR consulting and coaching services to empower both men and women to make intentional choices at critical times in their career and reach their fullest potential.