Cookies on the ehospice website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. We also use cookies to ensure we show you advertising that is relevant to you. If you continue without changing your settings, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on the ehospice website. However, if you would like to, you can change your cookie settings at any time.

Employers can not afford to ignore workplace grief

Author: Breffni McGuinness
18 April 2017
  • Image from Pixabay

Bereavement leave for civil servants whose spouses or partners dies has been increased from five days to 20 days.

The new leave entitlement applies to all 35,000 civil servants and was confirmed in a circular to staff. The new rules also increase the amount of leave given to civil servants on the death of other close family members, including parents, sisters and brothers, grandparents and grandchildren from three to five days. 
Irish Hospice Foundation bereavement expert and training manager, Breffni McGuinness welcomed the move but said grief does not end when employees return to work. 

In an interview for eHospice, Mr McGuinness said:

“The extension of bereavement leave in the civil service is a wonderful development. It shows an awareness that bereavement isn’t just something that can be completed in three to five days. It’s an acknowledgement that the impact on staff extends for a longer period.  

The Irish Hospice Foundation estimates that one in ten members of the Irish workforce or about 190,000 people are affected by bereavement every year.But there is no legal entitlement to bereavement leave in Ireland or the EU. It’s entirely discretionary. 

Often what happens to people around a death, is there is a short amount of leave usually between three to five days. Really all that is giving the person is the opportunity to deal with funeral arrangements. 

Bereavement is a process which takes a long time. For example the normal time span to adjust to a parents death is two years and often times the second year is more difficult than the first year.

We very much welcome extended leave and also the idea of having grief friendly workplaces which are supportive of staff not just through leave but the way staff are supported when they return to work and over that longer period of two years.

What we are talking about here is an understanding of the grieving process and how it impacts on staff. People will dip into and dip out of their grief and what we suggest is that a workplace at a minimum shouldn’t inhibit or make a person’s grieving process worse.

A culture around death and dying which is open and supportive will allow an employee to dip into and dip out of their grief. There may be good days and bad days, times when the person might be quite affected by what has happened not just in the two to three weeks after death but over the longer period,  two years.

Someone might come back to work and may appear a certain way to colleagues who may think they are coping very well, that they are very strong, they don’t need any more help . 

However what tends to happen with bereavement is in the first couple of weeks or months after death we are in shock and the reality of the loss hasn’t hit us. Often it is about six to 18 months after death that the reality of the loss begins to come to the surface.

Two things happen around this time. First a lot of the support that might have been there from colleagues tends to ebb away. When somebody returns to work, we think they are coping, they are getting on with it, they are doing okay. So the support tends to ease off after six months this could be quite a difficult period for the employee that is bereaved.

We are encouraging work places to become aware of the grieving process and how it affects staff and to be aware of what kind of supports make a difference when staff are bereaved. 

This new extended leave for bereavement is a very, very welcome addition but there are other things as well that could really make a difference. A lot of this comes down to, having a good open and supportive attitude around death and dying as part of the culture of the workplace.

This is a kind of workplace where it is not frowned upon if you find yourself taken over by the grief or something triggers what we call grief bursts and you may be very upset.

I am aware of a woman whose child had cancer and the child died at three years of age. Both herself and her husband were working in the same company. She said that her workplace was very important to her in adjusting to her child’s death which took quite a while. 

She said one of the things that made a real difference to her was her manager coming to her and saying that if she needed to take a break to just take it. The manager told her she didn't need to explain but to just let her know if she was taking a break. .

She said knowing that she could take that break meant in actual fact she didn’t ever take a day off. But knowing that she could meant such a difference to her. That is an example of a good workplace where there is an understanding of how the grief can impact over a long period of time.

There is a lot more to be done in the workplace around grief and around its impact on the staff. What we are really looking to do is empower managers to be able to be good managers around grief. That means being human, that means taking into account that grief is not something to be gotten over or to be brushed under the carpet or to be pushed aside and just get on with the job.

You need to be able to do both things. You need to be able to focus on your job but in a funny way you also need to be able to focus on your grief and it’s not one or the other.

We would really like to continue this debate and broaden it out to help people understand the other areas that can be really helpful for staff who are bereaved in the workplace.

There is no legal entitlement to bereavement leave in Ireland or the EU. It’s entirely discretionary.

People will talk about force majeure but force majeure is something entirely different.  We developed a template bereavement policy and we encourage companies to take this and to modify it according to their own organisation. 

Each organisation is going to be different. We suggest a number of key areas that an organisation should look at in terms of a bereavement policy like bereavement leave, returning to work, supporting the bereaved in an ongoing way  and health and safety.

In terms of health and safety we know bereavement impacts in terms of concentration, energy levels and tiredness.  While we are thinking we are okay we may not be aware of the impact of grief on us. Any safety critical job that’s something we need to think about in terms of a policy.

Employers may feel that they can not afford bereavement leave. It’s a false economy to think we do not have enough time, or we do not have enough money or this is too much of an irritation.

This is a real point in peoples’ lives. The smart thing is to be proactive and embrace it. As an organisation you learn in terms of how to deal with these difficult situations, you build up a reserve of goodwill within the organisation and you develop humanly as an organisation which will lead to productivity.

One thing we would say is when someone is at a vulnerable point – an employee – if you treat them well around that time you will get back in spades from that employee in terms of commitment to the organisation.

The opposite is true, if you treat people badly, you ignore them or short change them around these times people remember that. What you have to look at there is you may get attrition of staff.  The psychological contract between an employee and an employer, if that is enriched by the way you are dealing with death or dying you are building up a good capital for the future.

The opposite is true, if you are scrimping or saving or mean around somebody’s bereavement and it is a very vulnerable time in someone’s life the damage done to the psychological contract could be long term.  

Companies and employers have a great opportunity to do what is right, by employees. It’s the right thing to do but it is also a very smart business thing to do. Your greatest asset is your employees, if you treat those assets well at a difficult time, one of which would be bereavement watch what happens.

If you treat people badly, watch what happens, people will leave. They will even withdraw psychologically from the organisation.

You have to weigh up, what is the cost of rehiring? What is the cost of knowledge lost to the organisation of a person leaving? It’s very short sighted to think that we can’t afford to do this. What I would say, is you cannot afford not to do this well.

People also watch how others are treated and people make their own decisions."

Grief at Work for Managers is one of the Irish Hospice Foundation's training courses . The workshop is an introduction to understanding grief and how to support bereaved staff in the workplace. It is suitable for managers and staff who are in a supervisory or supportive role for employees in an organisation.Its aim is to provide participants with an understanding of the impact of loss and grief in the workplace and offers practical tips and skills to build a supportive work environment




Share article

Article tags

See more articles in Opinion

Comments | 0 comments

There are currently no comments. To be the first to make a comment...

Add comment

Denotes required field

Your Name



Most viewed articles