Dying Matters Awareness Week: Support for Employees

Dying Matters Awareness Week is a period during which Hospice UK, which arranges it, encourages people to come together to talk about issues relating to death, dying, grief and bereavement. This year, communities are being encouraged to talk about how these issues affect us in the workplace. Here Abi Pattenden, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, looks at […]

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Dying Matters Awareness Week is a period during which Hospice UK, which arranges it, encourages people to come together to talk about issues relating to death, dying, grief and bereavement. This year, communities are being encouraged to talk about how these issues affect us in the workplace. Here Abi Pattenden, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, looks at what companies and colleagues can do to be supportive in the face of times like these.

The first thing to say is that- as we know- everything relating to death and bereavement is unique. People experience grief in different ways. Therefore, for me, one of the most important things to remember when we think about how we can support our employees and colleagues during their hard times is that we can’t be proscriptive- we need to listen, and tailor our support accordingly.

Thinking about when an employee is bereaved- or becomes in a situation where they may be, such as someone they love becoming ill or having an accident- there is very little guidance on what the ‘right’ amount of support is to offer them- especially in terms of time or pay. In some ways this is a good thing due to the unique nature of all of our personalities, but it makes treating people consistently- and fairly- hard. People are often surprised to learn that there is no right to paid time off when someone dies. This is true regardless of the relationship between the employee and the person who has died. Employment law allows for ‘reasonable’ time off but doesn’t specify what that might be and whether you get paid or not for this length of time is up to your workplace’s terms and conditions- the exception to this being Jack’s Law.

Jack’s Law consists of two parts: Statutory Parental Bereavement Pay and Parental Bereavement Leave. These confirm what support must be provided to someone who experiences the death of their child, or a child they have responsibility for. The rules are not straightforward, but basically allow a parent or guardian to have two weeks off work, paid at a set rate or 90% of average weekly earnings, if their child dies- or is stillborn above 24 weeks’ gestation. This law, which was introduced in 2020, is the only one in the UK that is specific about what is allowed for an employee when someone dies.

In practice, there is nothing to say that two weeks is a suitable length of time for someone to be absent from work following a bereavement (Jack’s Law allows for this to be taken together or separately but must be in one-week blocks), and of course there is no obligation for an employer to extend this right to other bereavements, including baby loss earlier in pregnancy. Therefore, it is generally down to employers to develop policies in these areas.

This can be difficult because some of the ways that you might seek to demarcate, for example by relationship to the person who has died, can feel insensitive- and are increasingly unrealistic in today’s society. Blended families, the altering nature of childcare, and the idea of a ‘chosen family’ all have a bearing. Designating, for example, two weeks off for ‘immediate family’ but only a couple of days for anyone else feels less relevant- for example, your employee may be estranged from her father, and not even intend to attend his funeral, but may have a friend of forty years’ standing who feels like a sister. People also form attachments to pets and even celebrities- in a previous role, I worked with a man who claimed that he didn’t know how he would ever come to work when his cat died.

Therefore, deciding to not have a concrete terms within a policy but instead working with team members to assess what is going to help them might be more sensible. This isn’t an easy option- all flexible policies are open to abuse, and justifying that what you have done is ‘fair’ might be hard- but managers who know their teams well should understand their significant relationships outside work, and employees who are generally satisfied are unlikely to take advantage. What is also hard is the need for careful managing to ensure that a dialogue is kept open, especially with anyone whose behaviour is out of context (for example, being deeply affected for several months by the death of someone who they self-confessedly were not close to).

Flexibility also allows for those cases when someone is very determined that they want to keep working- as long as they know they are not obliged to. The idea of being forced to stay at home when they would rather maintain a normal routine might be very difficult for some people. Again, conversations need to take place to ensure that this is a legitimate choice rather than driven by concerns about issues like the safety of their position or detrimentally affecting colleagues.

Of course, a period of leave, or pay, are not the only ways to support someone when they are bereaved. Small gestures like making a drink, a card from the team, regular check-ins, and responding to requests for either time alone or to be kept involved will all be appreciated. Longer term, there is a lot to do when someone dies, and so making allowances for a need to- for example- go to a solicitor’s appointment or print off paperwork in the office will be helpful. Larger employers might have a counselling service that a team member can take advantage of- but giving time to access a bereavement counsellor or group is a good idea if the employee wants it, especially because of the effect it will have on their overall wellbeing. The benefit of a team seeing their company supporting a colleague is self-evident, too.

Finally, it is worth remembering that some bereavements lead to permanent changes. The death of a parent or partner might lead to your staff member having additional caring responsibilities or a need to downsize. All employees have a right to request flexible working, but it’s a well-accepted fact that it’s a good idea to avoid significant decisions (when you can) in the immediate period after being bereaved. Being flexible in the short-term might help guide a team member through the process of adjusting to their different life, and may actually help them to assess what permanent changes, if any, they need to make- it might even save them from making a spur-of-the-moment decision they might later regret.

As this piece suggests, bereavement in the workplace is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. While I understand the value of fixed policies- especially in bigger companies- for a company like Freeman Brothers, where we tend to have long-serving staff who we know well, working with them as individuals feels like the most suitable way to ensure the support we can give is suitable, practical but- most of all-appropriate to the individual.

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Written by Abi Pattenden

Manager

May 9, 2023

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