Every UK worker should be entitled to two weeks’ statutory bereavement leave for the loss of a partner or close relative, argues palliative care support charity Sue Ryder.
On 9 November, the charity launched a campaign for the measure, together with a petition and a set of research findings showing that:
- 7.9 million people currently in employment (24% of all workers) have experienced a bereavement in the past 12 months;
- grief experienced by employees who have lost loved ones costs HM Treasury almost £8 billion a year and the overall UK economy £23 billion a year, through reduced tax revenues and increased use of NHS and social care resources, and
- most of the negative economic impact stems from grieving staff being unable to work at their normal levels of productivity while they deal with the mental, physical, and financial impacts of bereavement.
“The grief that follows a bereavement may include difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness,” the charity noted. “Intense grief can lead to loss of sleep and appetite, an inability to think clearly and in the most extreme cases, can lead to mental health conditions such as depression, eating disorders, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” (Sue Ryder Press Office, 9 November 2020)
Sue Ryder’s research indicates that public investment in adequate bereavement leave and support may result in initial, short-term costs. “However,” the charity points out, “this could lead to a significant saving for the UK economy and the treasury in the long-term, through reduced staff absence, higher employee productivity and a lesser reliance on the health and benefits system post-bereavement.”
The charity’s chief executive Heidi Travis said: “For many people, grief can be debilitating and additional stressors, such as work, can feel overwhelming. Currently, many employers offer three to five days compassionate leave – but lower income workers in less secure jobs often don’t have access to any leave.
“Sue Ryder is calling on the government to introduce two weeks’ statutory paid bereavement leave when a person is grieving the loss of any close relative or partner. This will allow people a crucial period of time to start processing their grief.”
In a LinkedIn thread about the campaign, headhunter Robert Tearle points out that grief can last for many years, that some employees may prefer to work to keep their minds occupied and that the answer therefore lies in providing staff with options. (LinkedIn News, 10 November 2020)
What should leaders and managers learn from all this about how best to relate to bereaved staff?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Loss is experienced so differently from one person to another, but always has a profound impact on people’s mental health, and that is something that leaders must recognise and address. In partnership with Business in the Community, we at the Institute have spent years campaigning for organisations to take mental health more seriously, and to open up time to talk for staff who are wrestling with the related challenges.”
She notes: “A hard, personal loss doesn’t have to be in connection with a close relative or partner – it can stem from the death of a colleague, a dear friend or even a pet. So, one of the most important and valuable things that a leader or manager can do is to make time to listen. Unless the bereaved individual has specifically said that they would rather not discuss their loss, don’t avoid the subject. One does not have to be a trained bereavement counsellor to set aside time in private to listen to an employee talk about their feelings and what they are going through.”
Cooper points out: “At a companywide level, we can never know for sure whether continuing to work is a positive step for the individual concerned. As the charity indicates, the impact of grief on mental health makes it difficult to engage with work. While some may look to work as a distraction from how they are feeling, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will feel ‘better’ as a result of working – or even that they will be as productive as usual. In that sense, the challenge for leaders and managers is knowing the individual, and negotiating sensitively around what that person communicates about their grief.”
She adds: “In organisational terms, it is vital to establish policies that recognise how profoundly bereavement effects people. We should want to help staff come to terms with the impacts of loss so they can return to work in a condition where they are able to contribute. So, the message to leaders is: take it seriously – and offer the support that’s right for that individual, and their particular loss.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace