Death is never easy to talk about and there is never a good time to die. We were all shocked by the recent tragedies in Berkeley in which six young students lost their lives, and in Tunisia when three innocent Irish holidaymakers were killed. These heart breaking and unthinkable incidents drove home how death can rip into peoples’ lives when least expected. At these sad times we think of the families and the terrible reality they have to adjust to. We respect their request for privacy and hope that as a nation, and as local communities, we can support them not just now but also in the months and years ahead.
To be bereaved is to be ‘robbed of’ someone significant to us, and grieving is our response to this loss. It is the process of adjusting to life without this person. It can take a lot longer than we might expect – two years being a useful rule of thumb. The time around the death is only the beginning of the process. How this is handled by the employer will have long lasting implications. Do it well and you will be remembered forever, do it badly and you will never be forgotten.
Bereavement is a challenging time for an employee and impacts on many levels – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. If we are treated with compassion and sensitivity we know we are valued by our organisation and our commitment to our work will be strengthened. If we are not treated with compassion the opposite can be the case.
A woman whose child was terminally ill told me of her positive experience with the small company she worked for. Through her child’s illness and death her company manager and owner were very supportive, facilitating flexible work options. After her child’s death she was told to take whatever time she needed, and she felt fully supported.
Should bereavement leave for workers be a statutory entitlement?
Bereavement leave is important, allowing the bereaved person attend to the necessary practical, emotional and ritual requirements around the death of a loved one. They will need time to spend with other family members, and there will be travel and funeral arrangements to be organised.
However, bereavement leave is only one aspect of an effective employer response to a worker who has lost a loved one. How does the organisation officially acknowledge what has happened and offer condolences? What is to be said about the death to colleagues, especially if it is traumatic and/or complicated (e.g suicide)? How is the worker treated when they return? What supports are available over the subsequent months and years for this person?
Employers should see if work arrangements can be modified to support the bereaved person. For example if someone’s job is dealing directly with the public can they have the option of working in a back office role for a couple of weeks?
Legislation for bereavement leave would result in people getting treated equally. Currently bereavement leave is at the discretion of the employer. While there are many good examples of compassionate care by managers there are also gaps. The leave that a bereaved worker gets should not be dependent on their relationship to their manager nor on their status within the organisation.
Ideally every workplace should have a bereavement policy which clearly outlines what supports and entitlements are available to a bereaved worker, and how they are accessed. This policy should include details on leave entitlements paid and unpaid, protocols around offering condolences, the return to work of the bereaved employee and access to flexible working options. It should also include information on ongoing supports and how to access them.
The Irish Hospice Foundation has worked with key employer and employee organisations to produce a number of resources that can help employers respond effectively to a bereaved worker. These include a guide on developing a bereavement policy as well as a website with quick guides for employers on understanding grief, how to break bad news and how to effectively support a worker who is bereaved.
The legislation introduced by the Sinn Fein TD Peadar Toibin recently is an important first step in raising awareness at a national and governmental level around supporting workers who are bereaved. However, it is just one step in developing effective responses in the workplace for bereaved employees. Alongside this, there should be a statutory requirement for every employer to have a bereavement policy which will outline not just leave entitlements but details of ongoing supports and response protocols. A number of organisations in Ireland have led the way in developing bereavement policies and they have had a very beneficial effect for bereaved workers and the organisations as well.
As we are conscious at this time in Ireland of great tragedies and suffering, let us strive as a nation to put in place legacies, through bereavement policies and bereavement leave, which will do our bit to support those workers dealing with their own unique experiences of bereavement, now and in to the future.
Breffini McGuinness is Bereavement Services Training and Development Manager with The Irish Hospice Foundation. For more information email email@example.com