Next month marks the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death and I can still vividly remember the day I returned to work after her funeral. I sat on the train watching the other commuters, in shock and disbelief that they were busily getting on with their normal lives when just a few days earlier the anchor had been ripped out of mine.
Research from the Irish Hospice Foundation on grief in the workplace has revealed that one in four Irish adults have experienced bereavement in the last five years, yet just under a third (31 per cent) said they were supported when they returned to work.
The survey of people’s experiences of bereavement in the workplace also found that for one in three of those bereaved, the loss involved the death of a parent, for 29 per cent it was a relative, while 10 per cent suffered the death of a close friend and for 9 per cent it was the death of a sibling.
The survey of 1,000 adults, which controlled for age, gender, social class and region to ensure the sample was nationally representative, was carried out this time last year, on behalf of the hospice foundation by Amárach Research and Weafer Research Associates.
According to the survey, the vast majority – three in four – of those who experienced a bereavement in the workplace in the last five years said they were satisfied with the support they had received from their employer; and two-thirds said they had been treated with compassion.
However, just over a third said their bereavement leave entitlements had been clearly explained to them, which meant that almost two-thirds had not received clear communication about their entitlement options.
The results of the survey also found that many who were dissatisfied with the support they received from their employer said they would have appreciated more support on returning to work after the bereavement, clear bereavement leave entitlements, or to be treated with compassion by their employer.
When asked what was the most important support an employer could provide to an employee who is bereaved, most Irish adults said they would like to be treated with compassion (75 per cent), followed by extra leave entitlements (61 per cent) while 57 per cent said they would have liked flexible work policies around location and work.
Forty-one per cent said it was important to them that their loss was acknowledged by the organisation and colleagues and 34 per cent said respecting their privacy was important.
Breffni McGuinness, training manager in bereavement and end-of-life care with the Irish Hospice Foundation, said the research clearly showed the importance of treating bereaved employees with compassion.
“We can have policies, we can have all sorts of things in place, but it is how they are delivered to the person who is grieving that really makes the difference. That can make a positive difference if it’s done well – and there is great evidence through this research that it is done well in a lot of cases; and the other side of it is, if it is done badly the fallout is significant”.
According to the hospice foundation, “grief cannot be left at the door when an employee comes to work. Many managers and colleagues want to do the right thing but are unsure about how to support a bereaved colleague.”
To address this, the organisation has created a series of resources and training programmes for organisations and staff to help them understand grief in the workplace, the impact grief has on the bereaved and their colleagues, and ways in which bereaved people can be positively supported.
The research also found that just three in 10 Irish adults said their employer had a bereavement policy in place, a similar number said their employer did not have such a policy and the largest group said they did not know.
While there is no legal requirement for an employer to have a bereavement policy, the hospice foundation says every organisation should have one. McGuinness says it is not enough just to have a policy, it was also vital that it was communicated to and understood by all employees and implemented with compassion.
“How a policy is conveyed, implemented and understood is so important and what we really see from this research is where people need help is in understanding how to be compassionate to employees who are bereaved,” he said.
There is also no legal requirement for companies to provide compassionate leave however, most companies provide between three and five days depending on the relationship of the employee to the person who has died.
In 2017 Facebook extended its paid bereavement leave to all employees from five to ten days for extended family members and 20 days for close family members. Since then a number of other companies have followed suit including the Irish Civil Service which now provides 20 days paid leave for the death of a spouse, partner or child.
McGuinness says one of the most important things any manager or employee can do to support a bereaved colleague is to acknowledge their grief.
“The message we try to get out to organisations that we work with is to talk about these situations when they come up. A lot of what we try to encourage people to do is to be a human being in a human situation and think of the person for whom this has happened. Try and put yourself in their shoes. If you don’t know what to say, say, “I don’t know what to say but I would like to support you.”
He also said that managers were going to feel uncomfortable but it was not something they should worry too much about.
“Don’t beat yourself up about not having everything perfect but do please reach out to the person and do please listen to what they say and allow then to guide you to their grief.”
There is no timetable for grief and for some it can take up to two years for life to return to a new normal; therefore, McGuinness says, a compassionate response to workplace bereavement included helping employees understand grief and the grieving process
“One of the things we try to do is avoid a culture in the workplace where you have to put your grief aside when you come into work. What we really want to aim towards is workplaces where people can do what they need to do around their grief.”
Anyone who has lost someone close to them will have experienced what is known as a “grief burst” – anything can set it off, a song on the radio, a particular smell and you don’t even have to be thinking about your loved one for it to happen.
According to McGuinness, a good workplace will allow that people will have moments when they will be impacted by their grief and when grief bursts occur support the person in that moment.
He also said that most people will want to come back to work and stay in work provided they are supported around their grief.
“If it is done well the benefit to the organisation is huge because if you look after somebody when they are bereaved they will go through walls for you and the opposite is true: if they feel that they or their loved one is not respected, the damage is long-lasting.”
The importance of showing compassion to bereaved employees was also born out in the survey, with more than half of Irish adults stating that they would feel less committed to their job if they did not receive appropriate support.
Furthermore, a lack of support following a bereavement would make 4 per cent take more sick days and 45 per cent said it would make them feel disgruntled and would make them share this frustration with their colleagues.
Almost a third of employees said that a lack of support from an employer would make them think about leaving their job and 24 per cent said it would make them actually leave, underlining the importance of organisations being compassionate and supportive of employees in their grief if they want to hold on to good people.
“I think the gap that we have and what we are looking to raise awareness around [is] how can we help people to be able to have the confidence to approach this topic and to be able to reach out to somebody who is bereaved and to understand that what the person is looking for is a human response in a very human situation. When somebody is bereaved their world stops, everything changes and how people respond and react to them at that vulnerable time is really important and is remembered,” McGuinness says.
The Irish Hospice Foundation is hosting a workshop entitled Grief at Work: When it is not Business as Usual, as part of its Forum 2019 conference which takes place in Dublin Castle on Thursday, October 24th.
The conference theme is "Dying is everyone's business" and Dr Kathryn Mannix former palliative care doctor, author and full-time campaigner for better public understanding of dying, will deliver the keynote address.