KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 10-Jan-14 16:39:52

Bereavement leave – why our bosses need to recognise grief

Significant numbers of people who have been bereaved feel let down by their employers, as shown by a new report from Dying Matters and the National Council for Palliative Care.

In today's guest post, Joe Levenson, Director of Communications for the National Council for Palliative Care and the Dying Matters Coalition, argues that a more compassionate approach is needed, and calls for a national review of employment practice related to bereavement.

Read his post and tell us what you think. Have you been treated inconsiderately by a boss after losing a loved one? Share your experiences on the thread below.

Lead photo
Joe Levenson

Director of Communications for the National Council for Palliative Care & Dying Matters

Posted on

Fri 10-Jan-14 16:39:52

(88 comments)

Almost a third of people felt their employer did not treat them with compassion when a relative died, according to a new survey.

Every minute someone in Britain dies, and almost half of us say we’ve been bereaved in the last five years. Yet society’s response before and after a death often falls short, which can make dealing with loss so much more difficult.

All too frequently people who have been bereaved report feeling unsupported. There are sadly countless stories of people who have lost a loved one and who have been treated unsympathetically, including in the workplace.

A new report from the National Council for Palliative Care, published with the Dying Matters Coalition and the National Bereavement Alliance, reveals that significant numbers of bereaved people say they felt let down by their employer.

Almost a third of people who were in a job when someone close to them died, according to a new ComRes survey, did not feel their employer treated them with compassion. Moreover, despite job insecurities and an uncertain economy, more than half of us say we would consider leaving our job if our employer did not provide proper support when someone close to us died.

The challenge now is to learn from good and bad experiences alike, so that more bereaved people can receive the support they need from their employer, when they need it.

While some employers have excellent compassionate employment policies and are sympathetic and flexible to staff who have been bereaved, many others appear to be failing to provide the right support. People who are self-employed can also find it hard to access support and may find juggling work and the practical and emotional fallout of the death of a loved one impossible, at least in the short-term.

Since the publication of our report, I’ve heard both heartbreaking and heart-warming stories of people’s treatment from employers after having been bereaved. I was particularly struck by one BBC interviewer, who the moment we went off air told me that her husband who worked elsewhere had not been able to get any time off work to attend her mum’s funeral, causing enormous upset.

The challenge now is to learn from good and bad experiences alike, so that more bereaved people can receive the support they need from their employer, when they need it.

That’s why we are calling for a national review of employment practice relating to bereavement, to improve the way people are treated at work. This review should look at the feasibility of minimum statutory paid bereavement leave - something which doesn’t exist at present.

The introduction of paid time off work for parents following bereavement is something which Lucy Herd - a Mumsnet Blogger who writes over at Jack's Rainbow - has been passionately campaigning for, since her young son Jack died in August 2010.

Whatever the outcome of Lucy’s campaign and our calls for a national review, there’s no excuse for employers not to go ahead immediately with ensuring they have an updated bereavement policy. To support employers with this, the Dying Matters Coalition, which aims to raise awareness about the importance of talking more openly about dying, death and bereavement, has announced the launch of 'Compassionate employers'.

By Joe Levenson

Twitter: @DyingMatters

SirChenjin Sat 11-Jan-14 10:26:07

Numpty - we can do both. It's not a case of expecting the NHS and care services to sort out that side before businesses should be called upon to play their part. The 2 should run concurrently.

MrsDeVere Sat 11-Jan-14 10:26:09

You are conflating the issue Numpty. They are separate.
They are connected because one leads to the other but they shouldn't be tied up in the way you have.

NumptyNameChange Sat 11-Jan-14 10:48:35

but this is what the national whatever of palliative care are calling for - it's not that as concepts or goals or values to move towards both shouldn't be available but that at a national body has to choose it's priorities and the direction of it's resources and campaigning power. at this stage i'd have thought they would be better using those resources to fight for decent hospice place availability, better treatment of dying patients, standing up against funding cuts to nhs palliative services etc and if they want to get into wider benefits and money stuff then the priority would seem to be the awful way the welfare system is treating the terminally ill.

perhaps this is a safer or easier or less political issue for them to focus on though or perhaps someone somewhere in the game wants seats on review boards and funding streams to pour in a certain direction. who knows.

PigeonsCanClimbStairs Sat 11-Jan-14 11:06:31

When my mum died I had just started my job for a local authority. I had two weeks off (one before the funeral, one after), I had to use annual leave and got 5 days special leave (I had to complete a form to explain why I needed time off!). Although they were professional, I didn't feel they were especially sympathetic at the time.

Four years later when my dad was in a RTA and subsequently died, they were so much better, I got two weeks off special leave, allowed to make calls etc at work to sort out his estate and I was allowed to leave the office for some space when it all got a bit much. They even got flowers, which is only a small thing but it was appreciated.

I don't know whether the difference in treatment was down to me being in the job longer or whether they thought 'bloody hell, she's lost both her parents now, let's cut her some slack.'

SpringyReframed Sat 11-Jan-14 11:13:17

My mother died recently and it is the first time fortunately that I have first and knowledge of the practicalities of bereavement.
I am an only child and my dad is very elderly. I live miles away from them and getting everything done, from picking up the forms and personal effects to organising the service was a logistical nightmare. eg You have to register the death within a certain number of days but only one appointment was available within that time "because of staff holidays" hmm. No flexibility whatsoever was available.
I ended up tearing up and down the motorway until I was utterly exhausted. I only took one day off over it all in the end but after the funeral it all hit me. As it was coming up to the Christmas season my employer wanted me to work more hours when I really needed to work less. I ended up handing in my notice as I felt I couldnt work for a manager who had so little respect for me. I realised I could have got my GP to sign me off with stress too late really but when you are in grief and trying to help others in grief ie my Dad you are not in the mindset of working out how to "play the system".
I am now in a job I hate and the so the aftermath has been even worse than it might have been. If I had had even say 5 days of statutory leave it may have made all the difference to me.

But this also doesn't take into account the fact that sometimes families also live far away. 7 days of leave may seem compassionate, but when it isn't just a quick trip down the M25 but involves international flights and different countries, things can't just be sorted in a week.

My Dh was given ample time and help by his boss, however, my boss managed to make an already stressed time even worse!

MrsDeVere Sat 11-Jan-14 11:17:10

numpty this IS a really important issue for bereaved parents. (I am not saying it isn't for other types of bereavement but this is the area I am most familiar with).

We are talking about families losing their only income, not being able to pay mortgages, family breakdown, mental breakdown, siblings being isolated, the list goes on.

Because if your child dies there is no mechanism for supporting you until you are able to return to work. You have no rights.

It is hard enough if you are medically unfit but at least there is a route you can try to get financial support.

There are no benefits for bereaved parents. You have to rely on your employer to be helpful (possibly after months or years of accommodating your needs), try and convince ATOS you are mentally ill or try and rely on out of work benefits (which you won't get if you make yourself unemployed)

What are people supposed to do?

NumptyNameChange Sat 11-Jan-14 11:32:17

i cannot see any GP worth their salt not finding a way to sign you off as unfit for work if you are absolutely unable to work due to the death of a child for an extended period. they would write anxiety or depression or stress or whatever your emotional state most closely resembled.

perhaps i have just always sought out good empathetic GPs. if you're unfit for work you can be signed off as such. if you're taking so much time off that you're getting to the point of not being able to pay the mortgage then you're definitely going to be able to meet the criteria for depression or anxiety.

whilst grief is a natural process rather than a mental illness it can create the symptoms of mental illnesses and merit a medical note and access to the same recourses as anyone else who is unfit for work re: through illness, disability, injury etc.

MrsDeVere Sat 11-Jan-14 11:36:07

You can be signed off by a GP and still found fit by ATOS.

You can be signed off by a GP and and still contravene your employer's sickness policy.

You should not have to be diagnosed with a mental illness when you are not mentally ill. Grief is normal and should not be pathologised. That is what contributes to mental illness in the long term.

MrsDeVere Sat 11-Jan-14 11:39:11

This is the issue if you're unfit for work you can be signed off as such. if you're taking so much time off that you're getting to the point of not being able to pay the mortgage then you're definitely going to be able to meet the criteria for depression or anxiety

Why? What is acceptable amount of grief allowed before you are considered abnormal and therefore mentally ill?

It only takes a month to default on a mortgage or a few weeks behind with the rent to start eviction warnings arriving.

NumptyNameChange Sat 11-Jan-14 11:47:45

re: atos - so can a person with any other issue.

you can be signed off for depression or anxiety because you are 'feeling' depressed or anxious without it having to be the same as someone who is just out of the blue depressed or anxious. contrary to popular ideas for a lot of people who are depressed it is for good reason! depression too is actually quite a natural thing in some cases much like grief. and with both you can work through it naturally and without losing your ability to function in day to day life or you can become unable to function and therefore need time off.

in the first instant either way you self certify for 5 days and if you're not able to return you see your doctor who ascertains whether you are fit to work or not. if you're not you are signed off.

atos is a way down the road for most people as is unemployment. of course there are financial implications to going off of work long term be it because of illness, life problems or whatever. bereavement is not an illness but bereavement causing anxiety, depression like symptoms and an inability to function (therefore not able to work) would fit criteria for being signed off. if that went on long term then it would be a case of assessing whether it has become what they call a 'complicated grief' and has descended into something that qualifies as a clinical depression etc.

and all of this is talking pretty long term - so how long would you be thinking employers should have to pay bereavement pay without having a medical opinion brought in as to whether the person was fit to work?

NumptyNameChange Sat 11-Jan-14 11:49:50

it's not about the length of grief mrsdv but the extent upon functionality. one can still be grieving but fit for work and managing to get through day to day to life at the same time.

it's also arguable that for most people that kind of 'dual functioning' is essential to getting through a bereavement.

MrsDeVere Sat 11-Jan-14 12:27:44

You can Numpty but how long before it is considered abnormal?
At present there is no real provision outside of the two or three compassionate leave days.

No one would argue that is sufficient.

So immediately your child dies you are robbed of the space to grieve because you have to start making decisions about work.

I would argue that these additional stresses are the things that would contribute to grief becoming part of a depressive illness.

We all have to 'dual function'. It is not essential for getting 'through' a bereavement. It is the only choice you have.

You are required to hide your grief and not share it unless it is under officially sanctioned conditions eg. bereavement counselling.

So you are seen as functioning, doing well, getting through it.

You are not. You have no choice.

People suffer because of it.

MrsDeVere Sat 11-Jan-14 12:33:02

Do you have experience of this (genuine).
It all seems quite simple to you.

That is not my experience at all.

ATOS is NOT far down the line.

Women who are pregnant fill in a form for their employers. They are then entitled to (relatively) generous paid and then unpaid leave.

So there is a (hard won) precedent set.

You have a baby. You need time off to care for it and yourself. This has long term personal and collective benefits. You can chose to take a short time off or have more if you need to.

How can this not be a model for bereavement?

I will give you one answer - because we are expected to get on with it and not scare people with our grief and the proof that children die.

Slubberdegullion Sat 11-Jan-14 12:52:05

"Grief is normal and should not be pathologised"

This absolutely this.

Death is normal, death is natural. Grief is normal and natural. The idea that grieving has to be medicalised and squeezed into another rubber stamped box under a mental health heading is just bizarre. God what a depressing thought that we have to seek permission to grieve by a doctor.

SirChenjin Sat 11-Jan-14 13:24:02

Absolutely agree Slubber. Grief should not be medicalised - but doing that we absolve businesses of their responsibility to recognise the impact and effect bereavement has on their staff (and in turn of course, on their productivity...). By medicalising grief and requiring GPs to sign people off work all we do is add to the burden and cost - which in turn increases costs to the organisation ie the NHS which is trying to improve palliative care.

Numpty talks about directing resources to improve services. That won't happen if we burden GPs with this additional task - unless we propose a system whereby businesses foot the bill of any staff referral, but I suspect that in reality we will see an increase in staff facing investigations or disciplinary actions for 'sick' time. GPs need time to deliver good diagnosis and treatment - not additional work as a result from businesses not investing in their staff during times of bereavement.

FanFuckingTastic Sat 11-Jan-14 13:57:38

Grief should be allowed to remain as a normal reaction to a stressful situation and not made some sort of health condition, my mum doesn't need treatment, she needs (and needed) time to organise a funeral, sort out the estate and come to terms with the loss of her partner.

This is taking longer than perhaps might be considered normal because in the past five years her sister, mother and father all died similarly. How long she needs is about as easy as answering how long is a piece of string.

Bereavement allowance gives her a little bit of flexibility, the initial lump sum giving her money to arrange a funeral and the weekly payment giving her a little more income for a year while she comes to term with things. Her employer being understanding helps to minimise the outside stress of work influencing her grief, otherwise she might very well end up not able to work, thus adding to to debt and unemployment figures. Since other people's mental wellbeing rest on my mum's performance at work, it's very sensible that they ensure her wellbeing is looked after too.

todaysdateis Sat 11-Jan-14 15:35:23

My dad has terminal lung cancer - diagnosed over a year ago and he is still with us. But because of the prognosis I saved all my annual leave so that I would have a salary to cover any time I took off when he died. As it was coming up to the end of our holiday year I was being pressurised to take the time until finally I exploded at my line manager saying 'its not my fault he hasn't died yet!' my line manager then looked into our bereavement policy and I was entitled to 3 days on full pay! The rest was at the managers discretion. 3 days probably won't even cover his last days let alone organising funeral and the aftermarth.

Policies need to change otherwise peoples only recourse will be going off sick and some won't be able to afford that!

NumptyNameChange Sat 11-Jan-14 17:24:46

i'm sorry but you all seem to have a very disparaging or stigmatised view of what mental health is. no bereavement is not a mental illness but it does effect our mental health and well being and mental health is a recognised side of medicine needed to be able to function and work.

mental health isn't something you either have or you're a nutter or ill! anything can effect your mental health one thing being extreme stress and/or bereavement. the fact that you all seem to see it as some slight to be signed off as not being in a sufficiently mentally healthy place to work due to emotional stress and grief says a lot about the stigma placed on mental health issues.

yes mrsdv - i do unfortunately have experience of both bereavement and mental health problems.

NumptyNameChange Sat 11-Jan-14 17:28:31

being unfit for work due to stress or anxiety or other symptoms of mental/emotional distress doesn't have to mean you have a mental illness. and very many people who are unfit for work for emotional reasons in the short and medium term are so because of real life events not because of a spontaneously occurring chemical imbalance. your doctor can even just write 'stress' on a medical note - it is stress - bereavement is stressful on emotional, physical, psychological levels etc and impacts sleep, functionality, appetite etc. it is perfectly reasonable to be signed off by a doctor for those symptoms and realities.

i'm quite shocked that people don't get that they're basically saying yes but our suffering is cleaner, better or more justified than normal issues of mental health (whatever those are assumed to be) so i shouldn't have to have the black mark of having a mental health issue on my sick note.

FanFuckingTastic Sat 11-Jan-14 17:45:33

I don't have any sort of stigma about mental health, I have anxious personality disorder, recurrent depressive disorder, OCD and HFA, I'm a plethora of mental health problems, but I don't see considering grief itself as a mental health disorder as productive. Unless it causes mental health problems, grief is a normal part of life that most people experience and come through without major psychological difficulties. Usually you might regard it as an acute stress reaction, which can't really be treated, only managed and medicated at intolerant levels. Not wanting to regard it as a mental health problem is not being stigmatised or regarding mental health issues as a bad thing, but is recognizing grief as a normal, if difficult part of life. Making it clinical would just push people onto drugs that they don't need, they need time to recover in most cases.

SirChenjin Sat 11-Jan-14 17:53:39

I don't have any stigma of mental health - having experienced both mental health and bereavement, and being professionally involved with mental health services. However - and this is crucial - stress as a result of bereavement is a mental health condition, whereas as Fan says, bereavement and grief is a normal part of life, and one which most people will cope with so long as they are supported emotionally and financially by their employer (amongst others).

Diverting employees to mental health services as a matter of routine, rather than requiring employers to recognise their part in the bereavement process simply moves the problem to an already overburdened health service which should be allowed to concentrate on the business of providing excellent care to those who really are ill.

SirChenjin Sat 11-Jan-14 17:54:02

both mental ill health

NumptyNameChange Sat 11-Jan-14 18:14:44

troubles with mental health are also a natural part of human life - mental health is not synonymous with the absence of disease - it is a positive state of well being. bereavement, divorce, loss of status, illness etc ec etc will effect. not being in good mental and emotional health is not synonymous with being ill and covers natural life events too.

nor do you have to be receiving 'treatment' in order to be signed off.

given most people are saying they have a few days compassionate leave and then can self certify for 5 days without even having to see a doctor i will ask again - how long do you want people to be entitled to paid leave on the grounds of bereavement without having to have evidence that you are unfit for work?

it would help to know what it is people are asking for, why they are so against the idea of a doctor signing them off and if this doesn't need to involve a doctor would everyone in your vision have the 'entitlement' to x amount of time off (and i'd like to know what time it is you're thinking) for a bereavement no questions asked? again how long for? how close a family member would it have to be? etc.

NumptyNameChange Sat 11-Jan-14 18:21:38

also the vast majority of people who have been signed off due to mental, emotional or general stress issues do not have involvement with 'mental health services'

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