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  • Louise Bloomfield

Bereavement at Work: 10 Ways Employers Can Help

This week is Dying Matters Awareness Week 2023. Hospice UKs Dying Matters campaign works to create an open culture in which we’re comfortable talking about death, dying and grief. This year, the focus is on Dying Matters at Work.



Our society is not always comfortable acknowledging and talking about death. We just don’t talk about it enough. Yet, to be human means we will likely experience the death of a loved one during our lives. The fundamental truth is that we will all die. We don’t know when or how, but we most definitely will.


Despite death, dying, bereavement, and loss affecting all of us during our lives, many workplaces are not set up to support their employees through their grief. Dying Matters surveyed 1,000 people about their experiences of bereavement at work. 44% of people shared that the bereavement leave they were offered was not enough.


“When workplace policies and support falls short, people have to get creative - half took holiday for bereavement leave. Of these, just under a third did so because they didn’t think their employer would understand, and 28% felt guilty for taking time off work” (Dying Matters, 2023)


Many workplaces do not have bereavement policies, let alone offer bereavement leave. Some workplaces will provide a day off for the funeral. You may have the day off, but you may not be paid or will be required to make the time up. Some employers may offer days off to arrange your loved one’s funeral and attend it. Practical matters, rather than attending to the work of grief. Again, this leave may or may not be paid.


Most workplaces, if they do have a policy, stipulate the duration of time you may take off work depending on your relationship to the person who has died, defined by the relationship term, e.g., “parent”. We all know that it’s not that simple. Sometimes the people we are not related to by blood are more like family than those we are biologically or legally connected to. Within the policy, there is often a hierarchy of allowances, for example 3-days leave for the death of a partner, parent, or sibling, 1-day for a grandparent, and zero-days if the policy deems the employee to be not close enough to the deceased to warrant time off work.


Acas states that anyone classed as an employee has the right to time off if a dependant dies. A dependant could be a partner, child, parent, or a person who relies on you. The law does not say how much time off can be taken, but states it should be 'reasonable', to manage unexpected issues and emergencies involving the dependant, including leave to arrange or attend a funeral. Again, just the practicalities. Therefore, employers often stipulate that bereavement leave is dependent on whether the person who has died was a dependant. There is a legal duty for them to provide time off in this circumstance. If the person who died was not a child or a dependant, there's no legal right to time off, so they don’t need to provide it, and often don’t. Furthermore, Acas states there is no legal right for time off for dependant bereavement to be paid.


However, the law does stipulate how much time off an employee is entitled to if their child dies under the age of 18 or is stillborn after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Parents are entitled to just 2 weeks off. This is called 'parental bereavement leave' and is also known as 'Jack's Law'. Just 2 weeks’ leave after the death of their child. If a baby dies after 24 weeks, the birth mother is entitled to up to 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave or pay, and the birth father is entitled to 2 weeks of paternity leave or pay.


If a miscarriage happens in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, there's no entitlement to statutory maternity, paternity or parental bereavement leave. There is no provision for the parents of babies who died before 24 weeks. Stillbirths cannot be registered before the 24th week of pregnancy, which means the parents of babies who died before 24 weeks are entitled to no time off.


There is no legal right to time off if the person who died was not your dependant, even to attend the funeral, although your employer may allow it. In all circumstances there is no legal right for this time off to be paid, instead you may be encouraged to use holiday entitlement or take unpaid leave.


Your organisation's bereavement policy, if they have one, should define when leave for bereavement applies, how much leave is provided, and if it is paid. It might be called 'compassionate', 'bereavement', or 'special' leave. If there is no policy, Acas recommends discussing what might be possible with your employer. Sometimes, leave for bereavement is treated as sick leave, or is taken as holiday.


Dying Matters’ research shows that often people feel they must lie about why they need time off when they’re bereaved, using their annual leave, or pretending they’re sick. Grief is hard. Working whilst grieving is double-hard. But it seems that being honest and vulnerable about that with employers is often just too hard.


The Dying Matters survey shows that 50% of people used their holiday allowance for bereavement leave. Of these, just under a third did so because they didn’t think their employer would understand, and 28% felt guilty for taking time off work. Taking annual leave to attend to our grief just doesn’t work. Taking holiday leave should give us time to rest and self-care, have some fun, spend time with people we love, enabling us to return to work rejuvenated. Spending our annual leave allowance on grieving does not allow for these essential wellbeing practices.


39% of people in the survey said they have lied about why they were taking time off after someone died. The taboo of death and grief is real. Stigma shuts people up; it reduces the likelihood of people getting the support they need. Ultimately, this can lead to people being poorly, and for their grief to move from a natural process to a complex bereavement issue that impacts negatively on their lives.



How can Employers Help?


Grief, despite being universal and natural, will be different for everyone. Our experience of grief is as unique as we are, and as unique as our relationship with the person who has died. It's important for employers to:


1.

Be sensitive to the uniqueness of each person’s grief. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. One size does not fit all. Talk to the person about what they need and how they might be feeling. Some people might want to talk about it, others might not want to talk to you at all. Sometimes you're the wrong person and they'd feel more comfortable with someone else. Sometimes people just don't want to talk. Find out what they need.


2.

Consider people’s emotional and physical wellbeing. Think about grief holistically. Grief can be exhausting. It can make us feel extremely fatigued and delicate, even physically unwell sometimes. Grief can impact our sleep and eating, which has a massive impact on our wellbeing. Grief is a physical experience, as well as an emotional and mental one. Check-in with how they're doing emotionally as well as physically.


3.

Understand that grief is not a linear process. Grief can affect people differently at different times following a death. What they need is changeable. Grief lasts forever, but changes over time. Things like anniversaries, birthdays, and Christmas can make the grief feel ‘big’ again, whereas at other times it might feel smaller and easier to live with.



4.

Remember that loss and grief isn't always about the loss of a loved one through bereavement. Your employees will experience relationship breakups, separation and divorce, and family breakdowns, which can have a significant impact on their wellbeing and bring loss and grief. Remember too that sometimes, employees can grieve the death of their pets, not just people. It's not the who or what that matters, it's the significance they place on the loss of the relationship.


5.

Ensure you look after your bereaved employees once they return to work. It might be that they come back too soon or need to adjust their duties to make working whilst grieving feel easier, or they might benefit from someone to talk to. Check-in with them regularly.


6.

Be mindful that grief is hard enough, without the worry of negotiating time off, and considering pay and terms and conditions. Often when we’re bereaved, it can be difficult to concentrate. Ensure your policies and conversations are clear and accessible. Make sure all your employees know where they stand in relation to bereavement, so when someone is bereaved, they already know what they are entitled to and what they need to do.


7.

Make sure your policies for bereavement leave are ready, open, and consistent for all employees. Sometimes, where there is no policy in place, employers can give special or secret allowances or favours, e.g., time off or paid leave. This can be counterproductive as it can give the message that a person’s grief is an extraordinary event, one the company was not prepared for, and that the person requires a private arrangement, rather than grief being a universal experience that the company acknowledges and accommodates for in their policies and practice.


8.

Remember that for many people, talking about death and grief is a taboo and something that is difficult. Talking openly and non-judgmentally about death will make it easier for people to explore how they feel, what they need, and what they can do. Work relationships can be complex – remember to be a human talking to a human. We will all experience death in our lives.


9.

Get in touch for help with your Bereavement Policy, and how to support grieving employees. I can help you with policy and practice solutions for supporting bereaved staff and promoting staff wellbeing and self-care practices. I also provide emotional support check-ins for employees, along with packages of therapy for organisations.


10.

Sign up to one of my Understanding Bereavement workshops, or get in touch about my Bereavement at Work training. Up-skill your managers to have sensitive and challenging conversations with confidence and compassion. Raise your teams' understanding of bereavement and how grief impacts our lives at home and at work.


Take good care of you.


Louise


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