Bereavement at work

Covid has significantly increased the number of employees affected by grief, particularly traumatic grief. How should workplaces deal with that?

bereavement at work


How does grief affect the workplace and what are employers doing about it? Some firms have brought in extended or enhanced bereavement leave policies since Covid, a period which has seen so much grief.  According to the UK Commission on Bereavement, an estimated three million people experienced bereavement during the first two years of the pandemic, which is around 375,000 additional people bereaved compared to the previous five-year average.

There is no legal right for employees to receive paid bereavement leave in the UK – unless they have lost a child under 18 or suffered a stillbirth after 24 weeks, in which case they may be eligible for statutory parental bereavement leave [two weeks paid leave]. A campaign is under way to extend this to miscarriage before 24 weeks.

Many employers do, however, allow people bereavement or compassionate leave after the death of a close loved one. However, grief is a very individual thing. You can’t put a number of weeks on it; it affects different people in different ways; and in traumatic grief triggers can be everywhere, including at work itself, for instance, if news of the death came at work. Moreover, while there are obvious difficult times, Christmas or other family celebrations, birthdays, anniversaries and so forth employers may not know when all of these are. So being sensitive and compassionate is vital. That means managers being able to talk to employees about what they need or being approachable enough for employees to feel comfortable about asking them. It may mean flexible working – more working from home, for instance, where possible – to ease people back into work or just to take the social pressure off to perform as if their world hasn’t fallen apart. It’s all part of a more empathetic approach to work generally.

Everyone reacts differently to grief. When my daughter died, my husband took a number of weeks off work. I was in a different position work-wise and also work provided a distraction from the shock and trauma of what had happened. I could go on automatic pilot. But now, three years on, I find that there are periods – generally, the lead-up to anniversaries – when, try as I might, I find it difficult to focus. Small things can set me off. Knocks on the door still bring panic and remind me of when the police came. As the anniversary of my daughter’s death approaches I can feel myself tensing up generally and I am exhausted with trying to outrun the grief by keeping busy, which is impossible, although staying still is worse.

It’s not just me. My daughter has just finished her A Level mocks. She has made a heroic effort over the last three years to get through her GCSEs, change schools and start her A Levels. On Sunday she couldn’t do it any more. She broke down and said she couldn’t revise. Nothing was going in. Fortunately, her school has been very understanding, but it’s been nearly three years now so they are not sure if the A Level examiners will be quite so sympathetic.

This year is particularly difficult because my second daughter is at university in exactly the same term that it all happened. Later this year – hopefully – she will be older than her sister ever got to be. The only way to deal with it is to be aware of all of the above, to lower any stress as much as possible and to treat those affected kindly. I know people whose employers have been very supportive – indeed my own have, and individual colleagues have been tremendous – but I also know of those who haven’t. It makes all the difference.

Last week I went to a House of Commons event on hit and run drivers which was calling for a new law to get around the failure to stop legislation which apparently can’t distinguish between clipping a wing mirror and killing someone. It was an opportunity to raise the issues with MPs and talk about all aspects of the justice system which make grief worse in such cases. It was something I needed to do, for myself, for my daughter and for others who might be in this horrible position, but it was exhausting emotionally, seeing her face on the screen among all those young people whose lives were taken in seconds by people who couldn’t even stop to report what they had done, in some cases leaving the injured person to die slowly, alone, by the side of the road.

With compassion, bereaved people can get their work done; it can be a welcome relief from the emotions that rage when there are no distractions. After all, work is the very least of the challenges they are facing.

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