The Deal with Death

by Laura Mitchell

As Friday night rapidly encroaches, what better time is there to sit at my computer & type about death? Okay, admittedly not the most uplifting topic, & perhaps something you actively avoid contemplating.

However, the bereavement policy recently adopted by Facebook; enabling employees to take 20 days paid leave following an immediate family death, has sparked great debate within the world of HR. Ever true to our ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to life, it can be argued that the British are somewhat reserved when it comes to bereavement. We often grieve privately & quietly, with employees taking on average a mere 3-5 days off following a family member’s death. Prior to my career in recruitment I studied psychology, whereby understanding the psychological implications of bereavement featured heavily throughout my academic career. In summary; response to the death of a loved one is an entirely subjective & personal experience, thus differs greatly between individuals.

A perfect example of disparate grieving processes can be taken from the UK soap opera, Eastenders. Before you groan & hastily stop reading, stay with me I’m going somewhere with this- The Mitchell sisters tragically drowned on New Year’s Eve. Jack Branning (Ronnie Mitchell’s husband, are you keeping up?) immediately fell into a deep depression, an empty, distraught shell of a man who did little other than cry. To contrast, their mother Glenda Mitchell shed few tears, staying productive to distract herself from her loss.

With this disparity in mind, can a ‘one size fits all’ bereavement policy be successfully implemented within businesses? How can employers distinguish a length of time that is ‘long enough’ for the grieving process? To answer these questions, I conducted an entirely valid & scientific investigation-by asking my colleagues for their opinions on Facebook’s bereavement policy. The responses I received can be categorised into three conclusions, as follows:

1. The length of leave should be determined case-by-case 

My colleagues & I were in agreement that a ‘one size fits all’ bereavement policy is not practical in reality. In an attempt to keep this rather morbid article as light-hearted as possible, I will not go into explicit detail about different bereavement circumstances. However, it is problematic to determine an ‘acceptable’ amount of time to go on leave without taking into account an amalgamation of situational factors. As such, it can be suggested that employers determine the length of compassionate leave on a ‘case-by-case’ basis, tailoring the policy to suit the needs of the employee. In addition, employers should offer flexible working systems following compassionate leave, to accommodate for the necessary actions that the bereaved must take following the death of a close relative; such as funeral arrangements & estate administration. One of my quantitatively-minded colleagues suggested that employers use a Likert Scale to determine the length of compassionate leave required. Somehow I do not think a ‘reaction to death’ scale is the most sensitive & effective method of supporting a bereaved employee, however the purpose of this article to explore the opinions of my colleagues; no matter how outlandish.

2. Employers should check-in with grieving employees regularly

There was a shared consensus amongst my colleagues that support from an employer following bereavement should go above & beyond granting compassionate leave. It was stated; rather pessimistically, that bereaved employees may take advantage of an empathetic employer, thus swindling extensive periods of paid leave which may not necessarily be required. Although it would be highly problematic to identify such malpractice, common sense dictates that if communication is maintained regularly between the employee and employer, instances of abusing the bereavement system is likely to diminish. By ‘checking-in’ with the bereaved, employers are able to develop an understanding of the additional support they may require to ease their transition back to work.

3. Longer periods off work can positively impact the business

Granting employees a substantial amount of compassionate leave may seem counterintuitive as, to put it simply, businesses are losing money without gaining anything in return. However, it can be suggested that if an employee returns to work during an emotionally challenging time, productivity is likely to be low with potential negative implications on the morale of the team. Unsurprisingly, there is a plethora of literature demonstrating the relationship between feeling valued within the workplace & increased commitment, performance & desire to remain working for an organisation. As such, if the aforementioned ‘case-by-case’ & ‘checking-in’ processes are adopted following bereavement, it can be argued that employees are more inclined to feel respected & supported within their workplace, thus will continue to work to their full capability upon their return.

I acknowledge that the findings derived from my somewhat unscientific method of investigation cannot be generalised across the population; however I believe my colleagues have suggested valid points for consideration. Bereavement policies are always going to remain a challenge for employers due to the highly subjective nature of the grieving process. However, kudos to Facebook for sparking a debate about a highly sensitive topic we otherwise actively try to ignore. 

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