This week (8-14 May) was Dying Matters Awareness Week. Part of Hospice UK’s Dying Matters campaign, the week was launched with the aim of encouraging people across the country to come together to speak about death, dying and grief in the workplace.
According to research by Marie Curie, Respecting and supporting grief at work: How employers can better support their staff through personal loss, published in September 2021, around one in eight people in the UK have experienced a bereavement since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic; however, just one in three employers has a bereavement policy in place, which often does not reflect what actually happens in practice.
This understandably has far-reaching ramifications for employees. Marie Curie’s report also found that 43% of bereaved respondents felt pressured to return to work before they were ready, while 58% felt their performance at work was affected by their grief months after the death of a loved one. Meanwhile, NCPC Dying Matters’ 2015 Life after death bereavement report found that more than half (56%) of employees would consider leaving their employer if they felt they were treated badly following a bereavement.
So, what can, or should, employers do to support bereaved employees?
Removing stigma by establishing an open culture where employees feel they can freely share what they are going through – and what they feel they need or would like – without fear of being judged is a good starting point.
Second, having a clear bereavement policy in place so employees are aware of exactly what support is available is key. Ahead of Dying Matters Awareness Week, retail organisation Co-op launched an enhanced flexible compassionate leave policy, doubling the amount of compassionate leave available to all employees from day one of employment. The organisation also introduced flexibility around when this leave can be taken, gave managers the discretion to allow further days to be taken based on individual circumstances, and emphasised that leave allowances should be based on the closeness of an employee’s bond with the deceased, not simply the relationship.
This followed Ovo Energy’s launch of unlimited fully paid compassionate leave in January, which aims to give employees the time they need to properly grieve for a loved one.
Another issue raised during Dying Matters Awareness Week is how employers can best support employees with a terminal diagnosis. Many organisations have policies and benefits in place to support individuals diagnosed with a serious illness, but how many have any specifically designed for terminally ill employees? Depending on the nature of their illness and diagnosis, some employees with a terminal diagnosis may wish to continue working when their health allows, be it for financial or personal reasons, such as retaining a sense of normality for as long as possible.
This is obviously an extremely sensitive subject and will inevitably involve some difficult conversations, but employers that take the time to do so will, no doubt, find that they can make a real difference to affected employees and their loved ones.