HR Indaba Conversations talk about coping with bereavement

Panellists agreed that dealing with grief should be carried out in a diverse and inclusive manner.

The last 18 months have been quite difficult, with many of us losing loved ones to Covid-19. And people have coped in different ways – some positive, some negative.

While the government clamped down on smoking and drinking, the pandemic exacerbated the rate of addiction, and many turned to substance abuse to cope with stress, said Dr Ashish Mandavia, EMEA commercial director at Quit Genius. Ashish was speaking at an HR Indaba Conversation on how HR leaders can manage grief, which was sponsored by Quit Genius.

“People are now returning to the office with addiction issues that were either present before, or exacerbated by the pandemic, he explained. “Quit Genius offers solutions to meet employees where they are, including unlimited one-on-one therapy, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (MCBT), and medication to help control cravings.”

Ruth Wotela, people wellness executive at Silverbridge, reflected that, “One thing we need to all acknowledge is that as we go through our lives, we will all experience grief in one form or another. Our role as HR is to look at how we can support people, making wellness a key focus.

“As an organisation, we are fortunate to have implemented unlimited leave, and our CEO encourages our employees to take time off to deal with grief and care for themselves.

"HR has a role to play in assisting leadership by following up on employees who have lost loved ones, which is difficult for management because they don’t know what to say, but it is important to reach out, because remaining silent is the worst thing you can do.

She also pointed that the role of the management is evolving to more of a coaching role and that managers needed to become more empathetic towards their direct reports, as well be equipped with the skills to identify warning signs of when employees are battling.

“The importance of team wellness is what we are driving, but it is also important to remember that it is okay not to be okay, and to reach out if you need help,” she said.

While we might all want to pretend that all is well, we need to be cognisant of behaviour such as toxic positivity, an obsession with being positive when someone is going through a difficult time, thus minimising their problem instead of acknowledging it. “We live in a culture where we have to show up like we have it all together and this should not be the case,” said Ruth.

Dean Naidoo, chief people officer at Aurecon Group said that as we experience challenges from all angles, it is necessary to ensure that leaders are not disconnected, and reach out to those who are dealing with grief. In addition, leaders have to be adaptive and discerning. “If one of us is struggling, we need to step up as leaders,” he said.

He added that there is no silver bullet to dealing with grief, especially when some employees ask to return to work in order to deal with grief in their own way – which can affect their productivity. Therefore, HR leaders need to strike that balance and take a cautionary approach when doing so.

According to Lucritia Govender, head HR – sub-Saharan Africa at JP Morgan Chase, grief can manifest itself in a variety of ways. As a result, it must be understood through the lens of diversity.

“Because we all experience grief differently, we need to understand it through a diversity lens. We also need to understand it from an organisational standpoint, such as how we provide support and empathy to employees who are grieving,” she explained.

Joyce Osborne, HR admin manager at Tsogo Sun, explained in session’s breakout room how organisations could use virtual platforms to create a safe space for like-minded individuals to share their experiences. “At Tsogo Sun, we run webinars to try and create a sense of community for our staff and to allow them to talk about some of the challenges that they are experiencing,” she explained.

All of the panellists agreed that a personalised approach is essential when dealing with grief, and that there is power in storytelling and sharing experiences, which encourages people to be more vocal, while also relying on long-term initiatives to help employees deal with grief. Furthermore, HR professionals must look after themselves and, if necessary, seek assistance.

In the chats
“How much of an impact can the culture of an organisation influence the kind of support that’s given to employees who are facing difficult times? What if you as an HR person don’t feel supported by the employer as discussed?” – Siphesihle Khoza, Auto Industrial


“I believe that we need to reiterate that is okay not to be okay and promote conversation. I have been telling employees that as individuals, you are the most important person in your life, and if you’re not okay, you can’t look after everyone else. Me first, as selfish as it may sound.” – Gen Carson, First National Bank