We recently spoke with Mhairi Fraser who reflected on her experience when she was a manager of a staff member whose baby died whilst on maternity leave.
To put this into context, an estimated 3,000 babies are either stillborn or die in the first 28 days after birth. This is a statistic you’re never really prepared for, and when it happens to one of your team members, you’re thrust into unknown waters. You may wonder…how do I let people know and who do I tell first? You will probably ask, what’s my role?
Here are 5 big ‘dos’ from a manager who has been there:
1. Manage information flow, balance openness and privacy and prevent gossip
· Tell everyone in your division/team the facts as quickly as possible - including those in the office, off site or on leave within 12 hours, through a carefully worded email.
· Convene a meeting of the direct team that staff member was in within 24 hours and facilitate an open discussion.
· Visit your staffer within first few days.
· Encourage a buddy system for your staffer, based on their friendship/affiliation and remind the buddies of the importance of confidentiality.
· Circulate the funeral details, noting that it was for those who ‘wish to attend’
· Have an open door policy for staff
· Ensure any formal supervision provides a place for individual discussion if and when needed
2. Normalise grief and contain anxiety sufficiently for work to continue in the team
· Use team meetings to keep everyone in the loop with opportunities for short discussion/questions to be answered.
· Continue your team culture of fun, food, reflection and collaboration
· When return to work planning commences, allow your team discussions to explore possible scenario's that may occur and how team members could respond. eg "What if someone is pregnant when staffer returns - should we play it down?" " Should I stop talking about my baby grandson?"; "What will we do when she walks through the door for the first time?". “How will I know if he wants to talk about it?” Note that these questions are relevant also when welcoming a colleague back who has lost a parent or other loved one.
3. Work with staffer and the team on a realistic return to work plan
· Remember to manage up – consider budget, redeployment, phased return, anticipating disruptions, negotiating impacts with affected staff
· If maternity leave was taken, organise a visit in the office before the return date to "break the ice"
· Supervision plan for first three months
· Direct team meet the day before return to work to prepare for staff return, discuss possible reactivation of earlier concerns/conversations around grief or discomfort.
4. Facilitate a return to duties within 6 months and set realistic expectations
· Identify milestones to transition staffer from part time back to full time work
· Negotiate increased responsibilities at each milestone
· Provide additional supervision sessions as required
· Gradual phasing out of formal buddy support in consultation with staffer and buddies
· Maintain open discussion and normalising " hiccups" with team when issues arose.
5. You need to get some support too.
· Seek out support/supervision from your manager
· Recognise how your own life experiences or professional learning’s enable you to be open to the situation rather than fearful.
· Lead your team in an open and transparent way, facilitating collective support
· Maintain the role boundary as manager rather than friend as this will provide clarity.
· Keep the end in mind will help you to stay focused.
We thank Mhairi for her reflections now and her brave leadership back then. As she said: “Taking this journey together is pretty special, but it’s not magic. It is the result of good leadership and making the space for people to be truly themselves”