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Employees can’t afford to take time off work following a bereavement

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In the wake of COVID-19, employers must review their bereavement policies to support grieving members of staff, says end of life charity Marie Curie.

Nearly half (49%) of bereaved people said that they couldn’t afford to stay off work, returning before they were ready, and a further 58% felt their performance was affected by grief in the months after the bereavement.

Nearly one in five bereaved people also said they received no paid leave and over half worried about their job security when taking time off.

Marie Curie surveyed 1,000 employed people who experienced a bereavement in the previous 12 months as well as over 400 HR professionals about policies and procedures in place to support their staff.

“My employer didn’t really do anything to support me. It was: “you need time off? OK, you can have it unpaid” said one anonymous respondent.

“They didn’t do anything. It was quite clear they just wanted me back as soon as possible” said another.

Nyiesha Wollaston’s dad Dennis died five weeks after diagnosis and she received minimal support from her workplace. Nyiesha, 29, from London, said“I got a call from my brother while I was at work to tell me our dad had two weeks to live. I was in shock and waited for my line manager or someone in the organisation to say I could go home. I got in touch to tell them my dad was dying and they said they were sorry to hear the news but to let them know when it happens so my bereavement leave can start.

“In such an unimaginably tough time of my life, I didn’t know what to feel or what was right in terms of support in the workplace. When my dad died I thought they were being supportive by letting me know my six days bereavement leave had started. But there is no time frame for bereavement and when I returned to work the following week I wasn’t ready, I felt like I was on another planet.

“During this time I had feedback that I wasn’t performing at the same level as other people in a similar role. At the time I thought that was a fair comment but on reflection I was going through one of the hardest times of my life. And they knew that.

“No one knows how to act around you and people didn’t know what to say, which is understandable. But my manager didn’t take me aside to check in on me. In one of the morning meetings she even asked, ‘why all the long faces, why is everyone so down?’.

“If you’re working through grief and trying to make sense of it all, you need those regular check ins and someone to look out for you. Maybe they didn’t do this for me because they were worried I was going to cry but its better to show you care than to say nothing.”

Ken Akers, Head of HR at Marie Curie, said:
“Returning to work before you are ready can complicate experiences of grief but for some work can be that routine and sense of normality people crave in times of crisis. Whatever the decision, employees must feel supported and trusted to do what is best for them.

“Part of creating a healthy environment around bereavement at work is about staff feeling equipped and supported to talk. It can be difficult to find the words or know how to support our colleagues but we must all find the courage to talk. It might be a difficult and uncomfortable conversation but it’s so important. We know that people are missing out on the support they need from their employers at an incredibly difficult time of their lives.

“Whether you are a small or large organisation, there are things you can do to be a more supportive, compassionate employer, and Marie Curie can help.”

Louise Bowen, Marie Curie COVID Bereavement Co-ordinator adds“The heart takes time to heal and there is no set time scale for grief. I’m always hearing people’s expectations around how long grief takes. Should they feel better or normal in a week, a month or even a year’s time? The simple answer is no but there are ways for you to cope and feel supported in your journey, including your return to work.”

Claire McCartney, Senior Policy Adviser, Resourcing and Inclusion, said:
“At the CIPD, we think it’s crucial that organisations properly support their bereaved colleagues. Employees that have experienced a close family bereavement will need time to come to terms with what’s happened and will be unlikely to be able to perform well at work if they are forced to return too quickly.”

Marie Curie can help transform the way you support your bereaved colleagues. Let’s handle grief better at work. Visit Mariecurie.org.uk/grief-at-work

The National Day of Reflection, on 23 March 2022, is an opportunity to support staff wellbeing by taking time to acknowledge – and reflect on – their experiences of grief and loss. Visit www.mariecurie.org.uk/daytoreflect

The Marie Curie Information & Support Service offers practical information and emotional support on all aspects of death, dying and bereavement. Call free on 0800 090 209 or visit mariecurie.org.uk/support


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