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What role can employers play in supporting employees facing loss or trauma?

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most employees experienced loss, trauma or exceptional stress at some point during their working lives. The causes of that loss and trauma can include:

  • The death of a loved one.
  • A personal or family member’s serious accident or disease such as cancer, stroke, or heart attack.
  • A family member struggling with a substance use disorder or significant mental health issue.

High levels of stress associated with loss and trauma increase employees’ risk for physical and mental health problems including diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, depression and substance misuse. Beyond the human toll, these issues can also impact productivity and costs, with an increase in absenteeism and presenteeism, where employees are physically present at work but unable to focus, or need to spend work time on the phone with physicians, insurers or family members.

In her book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, chief operating officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandburg estimated that grief-related losses cost American companies as much as $75 billion each year. Having a strategy in place to support employees is essential for both the individuals and the business.

Employers have a role to play in supporting employees who face loss and trauma. While having a company-wide strategy is essential, it’s also important to bear in mind that each employee’s needs and desire for support will be different, so employers should be as flexible as possible.

In addition to policies such as providing some amount of paid bereavement leave when employees experience a death in the family and offering counselling resources and referrals through an EAP, employers can also consider offering these resources to help employees cope:

Take a creative approach to increasing the employee’s available time off. While it’s not usually feasible to offer long periods of paid time off for employees who are dealing with loss or trauma, employers may want to consider extending the available time off by inviting fellow employees to donate some of their time off through a leave donation or leave sharing program. Employees can choose to share some of their accrued paid vacation time or sick leave with their co-worker.

Temporarily reduce workload and offer schedule flexibility. When an employee experiences a death in the family or is dealing with a serious diagnosis or a family member’s ongoing mental health issue, employers can offer more schedule flexibility: for example, providing shortened work days so the employee can attend physician’s appointments or chemotherapy infusions with an ill family member or reducing the number or complexity of tasks the employee must handle during this high-stress period.

Connect employees with healthcare resources. One of the daunting tasks that people dealing with their own or a family member’s serious physical or mental health problems are confronted with is finding and connecting with the most appropriate healthcare resources, whether that’s a physician to provide a second opinion, a mental health provider or an addiction medicine specialist or inpatient treatment facility. Employers can provide support in the form of a nurse case manager hotline or other partners who can vet providers, help employees schedule appointments, gather the needed medical records and answer questions about the diagnosis and proposed treatment options.

Consider a family support liaison. Employees may work extremely hard to make it seem like they’ve got the situation under control, but family members may see the stresses and their physical and mental effects play out at home. By offering a confidential family support liaison, employers can provide families with resources that can help them help the employee.

Another key element that often gets omitted from employers’ strategies is making sure that employees know what benefits and types of support are available and how to access them. Communication about these resources should be an ongoing effort, not simply a footnote in the annual open enrollment process.

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Workplace management Mental health PTO policies Voluntary benefits
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