Grief in the Workplace: time to address the elephant in the room

56% of employees would consider leaving a job if their employer did not give proper support after a bereavement (Thompson, 2013).

The pandemic has changed so many of our working patterns, rituals and interactions, but what about how this intersects with the bereavements that many of us have experienced over the past 15 months? According to Cambridge University, with only one death nine people are impacted by bereavement. With the deaths attributed to Covid-19 alone, that’s now well over a million people in the UK impacted by bereavement during the pandemic.


So, what does this mean for our workplaces and how they are supporting their employees with grief and bereavement? There is currently no statutory bereavement leave in the UK, with the recent exception of Jack’s Law which has recently been passed into legislation. Jack’s Law means people who suffer the devastating loss of a child will be entitled to 2 weeks’ statutory leave for all employed parents if they lose a child under the age of 18, or suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy, irrespective of how long they have worked for their employer [www.gov.uk].


Whilst Jack’s Law is a promising start for bereavement leave rights for UK employees, there is still a long way to go to make sure that time off, quality support and pay following the death of someone we love is both equitable and compassionate.


The lack of a statutory framework for employers to follow, means what you’re entitled to, as well what support you might receive from your workplace is at the mercy of your company and, when it comes down to it, your line manager too. This means, in practice, that your experience could vary wildly from friends or family, or even people in the same company as you. On top of that, unconscious bias and racism (and many other -isms too) will likely be at play here; meaning people who already face disproportionate levels of harm are further exposed at a time of deep pain and trauma.



When running a training session a few years ago, I was struck by a story of a young woman who shared with the group that she was denied time off after her best friend died, with the exception of one day off for the funeral. She described this friend to be closer than many of her family members - the same is probably true for many of us - and yet because her workplace’s policy was to allow bereavement leave for immediate family members only, her best friend’s death didn’t qualify for any additional paid time off.


Thinking more broadly on this example, there are many people who aren’t in touch with their family members or people who have large extended families; if their friend or member of their chosen family were to die, any time off would likely be excluded by a rigid policy like the example above. This is likely to further exclude people who already face discrimination in the workplace.


Callsuma Ali founded and hosts the Bereavement Room podcast as a direct result of her mistreatment by previous employers following the death of her mother and brother. She created it in honour of her own experiences of discrimination knowing that she can’t be the only person that has had these experiences or similar. Callsuma has created a space for black and brown people to share their experiences of grief, loss and oppression, how it impacts people culturally, the discrimination that happens, inequality and the lack of understanding about how grief might manifest itself within the diaspora and the challenges that come with it. The thread of how Callsuma’s guests were supported, or not, through their workplace, is weaved throughout the podcast’s three series.


James Boston, founder of the Talking Wellbeing App, featured on S2 E2 of Bereavement Room podcast, shares his story about a previous workplace:


I was at a workplace a few years ago. I’d not only lost one relative, but two relatives in a very short space of time... [The workplace] wasn't a nice environment to be in, and I actually noticed that there was a colleague of mine who also lost a relative around the same time. I'm not making any racial suggestions - maybe it was racially motivated or an unconscious bias, I don't know - but that person, who was a white guy, was treated extremely differently [to me] when it came to bereavement.


[This is] how extreme it was: I was giving a presentation to a very large audience the day after my relative had passed away. There was a very senior figure sitting next to me. When I was about to give that presentation, he did not once ask me if I was okay.


...And I only found out months and months later that that same senior figure in the institution knew the entire time that I'd lost relatives, one of them the day before. They knew the entire time and didn't even ask me if I was okay, or [offer] condolences. The only thing that that person asked me was if I was ready for the speech!


That institution showed no compassion at all; they were concerned about one thing - if the deadline is met.


James’ advice for employers and line managers out there: “Please make sure that you do not take your employees wellbeing for granted when it comes to bereavement. Make sure that they have the correct support. Don't treat it like a thing of oh, sorry to hear that. By the way, have you made that deadline?” Listen to the rest of the episode to hear more about James' personal bereavement journey.


Callsuma faciliatates James’ episode where he highlights the discrimination people of colour can face in the workplace and how different members of the same organisation can be treated very differently because of racism and unconscious bias; something that goes beyond bereavement and needs tackling on a systemic level in workplaces.


Sadly, James is not on his own in his experience of a lack of compassionate support from his employer. Research by Dying Matters has found “a third of employees who had suffered bereavement in the past five years felt they had not been treated with compassion by their employer." Dying Matters and Acas (2014).


But there are some examples of good practice shared on the Bereavement Room Podcast. Shirin Shah, Lawyer and Co-founder of South Asian Sisters Speak, guest on Season 2, Episode 13, shares here experience of how her employer supported her during her Dad’s illness, “I was very lucky with my work that they basically let me take 3 months off to be with my Dad and they also paid me during that entire time as well. So I was very lucky that they did that because I think it was such extraordinary circumstances. I can't even imagine if I’d have to go to work and think about [work] at that particular time.” Shirin also shares about her experiences of grieving in lockdown and what it was like to return to work; “When I was talking about coming back [my manager] said, if you want to defer like your last rotation and defer your qualification, I'm happy for you to do that...What I decided to do in the end was like to come back on like staggered basis so to like start with three days a week and then moved up to four and then eventually back to full time. So I was extraordinarily lucky, not only to get three months off, but also to be paid during that period. When I talk to [other] people [about their experiences], it's not even your company's policy, it actually just turns out to be your manager and how empathetic they are and probably an element of how much power they have.”



We’ve also heard from people who’ve got in touch with The Loss Project about how they felt well supported by their employer when someone close to them died. Glyn told us about his experience working for a large, multinational, private company:


When my Dad died suddenly and unexpectedly in September 2018, my line manager was actually in the process of returning from sick leave and I was still covering parts of his job. On the day my Dad died, I managed to get through to another senior manager who was totally supportive and who did later that day anyway let my own line manager know what had happened.


The company policy was to allow a week compassionate leave for such an event, plus time for the funeral. On top of that, my own line manager called me the next day and said I was to take as much time off as I needed immediately - and then to work how I wanted for as long as I needed and to call him anytime if I needed to talk. How amazing is that? I felt so supported.


I returned to work, but things changed for me over the following few months. I had worked for the company for 25 years. I loved the company and loved my job, but by early New Year 2019, I realised I could do this no longer. Things that were once important were now no longer - and this included life in the corporate world. So, one Saturday morning, I said literally those words to my wife: “I don't think I can do this anymore”. Her first words were, “Well don't then: you don't have to.”


My company was so nice - they asked me to think a bit longer, but would still honour my notice period from the first day I tendered my resignation, and they also offered me other working arrangements and opportunities to keep me. But the die was cast and I knew what I had to do: and I had left by June.


Despite my love for the company, it is the best decision I could have made. I'm still struggling with my grief, but in a better environment away from that type of working world. I am so grateful to my company for the 25 years I had with them and for the way they handled themselves when Dad died and my line manager was amazing too.


I realise I was probably very lucky in this experience, although I would hope that more companies today do have some level of understanding on how best to treat valued employees.


So although workplace policy is important, the level of support and attitude from your line manager and your colleagues is key to how supported we feel at work when it comes to bereavement. We hear this echoed a lot in our work at The Loss Project. There’s a big gap when it comes to our confidence talking or acknowledging grief and loss, as well as our ability to ask open questions and give space to really listen to each other. There’s a myth that we might upset people by bringing up the subject, but the reality is the person who is grieving is already upset; by bringing it up you’re acknowledging what’s happened and offering the opportunity for that person to share more about what’s going on for them, if they want to.


We’ve touched on the more human reasons as to why creating compassionate, loss-positive and decolonised workplaces are so critical, but there is also the economic argument too. Recent economic research commissioned by Sue Rider (2020) suggested that “grief experienced by employees who have lost a loved one costs the UK economy £23bn a year and costs HM Treasury nearly £8bn a year; through reduced tax revenues and increased use of NHS and social care resources.”


At The Loss Project, we want to support businesses, employers and managers to grow their skills, understanding and work-based policies when it comes to bereavement. As a society, and from stories we hear from people who have experienced loss and grief, we find it very difficult to know what to say or do when someone is going through a bereavement. Often our reactions are well intentioned, but are more about closing down conversation to avoid upset, pain or discomfort.


It’s hard and complex. Perhaps the answer is working from a person-centred, holistic approach on top of having statutory rights and an investment in training on how to support people going through grief in the workplace? What we do know is there’s lots more to do to make our lives of living and working alongside grief and loss a compassionate and equitable experience.


What can you do?


Work with us

Get in touch to book a free 30 minute chat with Carly or Claire to discuss some practical tips to help your situation, and to find out more about what we offer. Book in at hello@thelossproject.com


Support Policy Campaign

Sign Sue Rider’s Statutory Bereavement Leave Campaign - https://actions.sueryder.org/a/principle


Listen and learn from a range of personal stories and experiences

The Bereavement Room Podcast - Season 3 has just launched!


A podcast for community, faith and culture, featuring representative voices from across the U.K. A safe space for people of colour to tell their stories of grief and loss so often ignored or silenced by society because they are not told from a white perspective that fits into a neat and tidy box. People of colour’s experiences are very rarely covered by mainstream channels and platforms. The podcast discusses how grief effects us culturally, the discrimination that happens, inequality and the lack of understanding about how grief might manifest itself within the diaspora and the challenges that come with it.

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https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/bereavement-room/id1488982564


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We’d love to hear from you if you’ve experienced bereavement whilst working - we want to hear stories from any aspect of the spectrum of e