good life, good death, good grief

Scottish Bereavement Friendly Workplaces Toolkit

Case Studies

Workplaces can do a lot of good for bereaved people - easing people back into a routine and providing support and companionship after a loss. However, they can also do harm if they do not know how to handle a bereavement with sensitivity and care. The case studies below show the impact of both good and bad experiences with workplace bereavement care and emphasise why time and thought should be given to putting proper bereavement policies in place.

(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)

Good Experiences

"In November 2006 I started a new job in the same week that my father was diagnosed with MND. It took just 5 months from diagnosis for my dad to die which was a brutal shock for me.

My line manager, I later found out, had experienced a close bereavement herself which perhaps informed her decision making around the support she gave me.

The organisation employed over 1000 people. There was a section in the employment policies around bereavement – the key bit for me was the line ‘at your manager’s discretion’.

The actions that helped keep me afloat included:

  • A ‘take as long as you need’ attitude. I don’t recall if I took annual leave but there was no issue with me being off for at least 2 weeks.
  • On my return my manager had weekly one to ones with me which always involved a discussion around how I was doing personally
  • I was granted 6 or 8 counselling sessions through a work scheme which I think were free to me
  • And as time went on, for a set period of time, (around 3 months) I worked a 4 day week rather than 5 days.
  • The other thing that helped greatly was that within a few months I was given a big project to lead on. Reflecting on this now I can see that this really helped keep me moving forwards."

- Helen MacGregor, working for a charity

Bad Experiences

"My son was born prematurely at 29 weeks and 5 days gestation and due to complications during my pregnancy he died when he was only 6 days old. Whilst I found that there was a great deal of intent from HR, my manager and my colleagues to help, it often felt a very unsupportive and hostile environment to go back into. In hindsight, I can see that this was due to there being no policies and procedures in place and a lack of training and awareness around baby/child loss.

Thankfully due to the stage I got to in my pregnancy, I was entitled to full maternity leave which allowed me much needed time and space to grieve. However, the standard communication during my maternity leave was incredibly triggering for me as it was a constant reminder that I should be on maternity leave with a baby to care for, when in actual fact, I was on maternity leave without a baby to care for. It felt like there could have been a more sensitive way of approaching it.

That being said, I never felt pressured to return to work at any time before my mat leave ended and this was handled very sensitively by my manager. They offered me counselling through their employee assistance scheme and this was a lifeline at the time.

I was aware all the way through my mat leave that there was a need for me to go back to work. It was a constant source of anxiety for me as there was very little informal communication during that time. It would have been helpful to have had some insight into what was expected of me when I returned, i.e length of phased return, re-distribution of certain duties. It may have allowed me to feel able to come back to work sooner than I did. My reluctance to return was the awareness of the impact the grief and the trauma had had on my cognitive functioning and my ability to cope with stress.

When I returned, I pre-empted how difficult it was going to be for me to walk back into my open plan office and face everyone alone and arranged for a colleague to meet me at the front door. However, nothing can prepare you for how overwhelming it is to walk into a sea of familiar faces who are simply unsure of what to say/what to do. In hindsight, I feel it would have been helpful to have arranged a time to come in prior to my return to meet my team in a closed environment away from the glare of everyone else. It did feel like being in a goldfish bowl

What I didn’t pre-empt was the wider exposure I would have within the organisation and for weeks (if not months) after returning I had people assuming (seeing me without my bump) that I’d had my baby. This was incredibly difficult. I would often become upset and the person who had asked would have no idea what to say, or do.

As with all types of grief people often don’t know what to say and so either ignore you completely or they say something really insensitive.

One of the most difficult aspects when you work in a large open plan office, you often find yourself with pregnant women. I found this very re-traumatising. We don’t expect other pregnant women not to celebrate their pregnancy but having some choice around what we are exposed to feels crucial in the early days especially.

Another issue for me was exactly what I had feared that once I was back, I had to perform at 110%. I had also been moved into a different team when I returned which meant trying to learn a new job whilst coping with the effects of the grief and trauma on my cognitive functioning. I found this incredibly challenging when my confidence in my abilities to do my job was significantly low. I put myself under a lot of pressure to perform at the same level as I always had done prior to losing my son. It may have been helpful to assign a colleague the role of being available in a mentoring capacity to ensure that I began to rebuild my confidence.

When I was approaching the anniversary, it felt difficult for me to ask for time off, even though I instinctively knew that I was going to struggle to manage being in work. I didn’t communicate this to my manager, but it’s certainly worth mentioning as part of the wider education on the impact of grief.

All in all, I can say that in some respects my employer tried their best, but this was usually down to individuals trying to overcome company policies and procedures which weren’t suited to these particular circumstances."

- Pamela


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