Joe Levenson: We need to talk about dying: bereavement support in the workplace

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Every minute someone in the UK dies, and almost half of us report having been bereaved in the last five years. Yet society’s response, including in the workplace, often falls short – making it even harder for people to come to terms with the loss of someone close to them.

All too frequently people who have been bereaved report feeling isolated and being expected to “get on with it”, even when they had been very close to the person who died or when their death had been unexpected. This lack of support can have a major impact on every aspect of someone’s wellbeing, from physical and mental health to their ability to function in their professional or personal lives.

Whilst this lack of support for bereaved people is not only to be found in the workplace, our new report, Life after death: six steps to improve bereavement support, reveals that significant numbers of bereaved people say they felt let down by their employer.

According to new ComRes survey data contained in the report, almost a third of people who had been in a job when someone close to them died did not feel that their employer treated them with compassion, and a quarter said they had not been able to get the time off they needed.

The issue of bereavement support appears to be one of real concern to people, whether or not they have recently been bereaved. Despite job insecurities and an uncertain economy, more than half of the general public say they would consider leaving their job if their employer did not provide proper support to them if someone close to them died.

This clearly has enormous implications for staff morale, productivity and retention: indeed more than four in five people in the ComRes research said that they thought employers themselves could gain from adopting a more compassionate approach by providing paid bereavement leave.

While some employers have excellent compassionate employment policies and are sympathetic and flexible to staff who are carers or who have been bereaved, there’s little doubt that many others appear to be failing to provide the right support.

That’s why we believe a national review of employment practice relating to bereavement is needed to improve the way people are treated at work, reducing uncertainty and inconsistencies and increasing loyalty, staff morale and productivity. This review should explore the feasibility of minimum statutory paid bereavement leave, something which doesn’t exist at present other than through the general right for employees to receive a “reasonable” amount of unpaid time off to deal with dependents in general (i.e. not specific to terminal illness or bereavement), which means that it’s up to employers what if anything is provided. We’d also like to see any review identify ways of making the fitness to work certification work better for bereaved people and make recommendations for employers, including sample bereavement policies and information about good practice.

Alongside clearer and more compassionate policies on bereavement support in the workplace there’s arguably also a need for improved training and support for line managers, who can play a hugely important role in supporting bereaved people. Local bereavement services also have more of a role to play than at present, as they can help employers to develop and embed a compassionate approach and increase awareness of wider bereavement support that is available in the community.

The Dying Matters Coalition, which was set up five years ago to raise awareness about the importance of talking more openly about dying, death and bereavement has also announced the launch of ‘Compassionate employers’. This is a new national initiative aimed at supporting businesses who want to improve their approach to end of life issues, including through improved support for people who have been bereaved (employees as well as where appropriate customers), support for carers and training for managers and staff.

Whilst the responsibility for improving the support that bereaved people receive should by no means rest alone with employers, there’s little doubt that for people who are working, the support they do receive in the workplace makes a massive difference. However, this also needs to be accompanied by changes to the welfare system to ensure people who have been bereaved are properly supported as well as joined up policymaking, improved training and improved local commissioning of bereavement support.

There also needs to be a greater openness throughout society towards discussing end of life issues. For many people talking about dying and facing up to their own mortality still remains the final taboo, something either to be ignored or postponed indefinitely for a day that many of us like to believe will never come. As well as meaning that many of us don’t take practical steps such as writing a will or thinking about the care we would want at the end of our lives, this unease has a major impact in the workplace. Many people, including managers, are unsure how to talk to people who have been bereaved or who are caring for someone who is dying.

With an ageing population and demographic changes which mean that the number of people dying each year is set to increase, there’s never been a more important time to focus on how we deal with dying, death and bereavement. Dying matters and affects us all, and employers stand to benefit by talking more openly about it and the support that could be offered to people who have been bereaved.

Joe Levenson is Director of Communications for the National Council for Palliative Care and for the Dying Matters Coalition which it leads. To download the ‘Life after death: six steps to improve bereavement support’ report, published with the National Bereavement Alliance, visit www.dyingmatters.org. For more information about the ‘Compassionate employers’ initiative which the Dying Matters Coalition has launched contact email [email protected]

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