Having the right systems in place when a member of staff suffers a bereavement is essential. Here are some important factors to look out for
It would be surprising to find a GP practice that has not had to manage the impact of an employee’s bereavement. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) suggests that at any one time, one-in-10 employees are likely to be affected. In general practice most staff are only too aware of the effects a serious illness can have on patients and their relatives, and are used to offering compassion to those patients who lose loved ones. However, when it comes to managing the situation with the practice’s own staff, it can be just as tricky as for any other employer and sometimes more so.
GPs are not always the best at managing these difficult situations with their own staff as they can treat them like patients rather than employees. Of course a great deal of empathy and sensitivity is needed, but it is important that all staff are treated fairly and as consistently as possible, otherwise resentments can occur if some staff feel that others have been treated more favourably. There are of course variances in how each person deals with the loss of a close-one, often depending on whether the death was sudden or expected, the relationship with the relative, and individual differences in the way people react to a crisis. Take for instance the dreadful situation for a parent who loses a child, or a bereaved spouse who has to provide emotional support to young children and become financially responsible for the family. Every situation is different and no one really knows how they would react until it happens to them. The last thing a bereaved employee needs is to worry about is how much time they can have off work and how they will be able to face coming back to work soon after their loss.
Despite these considerations, the practice has to continue functioning and has to manage a difficult situation while continuing to provide a service to patients. There will be concerns about how long someone will be off work, how to cover the work while they are absent and how the employee will cope when they return. There may also be concerns about how to keep in touch during such a traumatic time. There may be cultural considerations for employees from certain faiths. It can feel like a minefield for the practice manager!
The starting point is to have a bereavement policy that lays out the amount of time off work employees can be expected to take following a bereavement of a close relative, and whether it is paid or not. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) research indicates that this is commonly up to five days of paid leave.
There is no employment legislation that specifically covers compassionate leave but there is a right from day one of employment to grant reasonable time off for someone who has dependents to deal with a domestic crisis, which could include organising a funeral. The amount of time off is not specified but it is usually considered to be one or two days. This time off does not have to be paid – that is up to the employer.
The policy could then offer a further period of unpaid leave after a period of compassionate leave on a case-by-case basis. In fact, many employees take a period of sick leave following bereavement as they are unable to function normally, often suffering from shock, anxiety, mood swings, and sleeplessness. Certified sickness will be subject to the practice’s policy on sick pay, which may just pay statutory sick pay (SSP) under the usual rules or may provide full or half pay according to the practice’s policy. This is a difficult area as the practice will not want to see a bereaved employee suffer financial hardship at such a vulnerable time.
The practice may therefore offer flexibility in providing a further period of paid leave or have a discussion
about the employee using a period of annual leave.
Most bereavement policies make it clear what constitutes a close relative, such as a spouse, child, parent, grandparent, or sibling. However, the death may be an in-law, a more distant relative, a neighbour or a close friend, and the practice will need to decide how to deal with these situations, such as offer a short period of unpaid leave.
There are special circumstances to be aware of with parents who suffer a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy or the subsequent death of a child born alive. The employee is entitled to the normal arrangements for maternity leave.
The bereavement policy should also cover the return to work following a bereavement and where necessary offer a change to part-time, reduced hours basis, or flexible working, again on a case-by-case basis and either temporarily or permanently. The practice may suggest a change in duties during a period of readjustment. This approach is more likely to support an employee who is anxious about coping with their normal duties or the amount of time they will be able to work each day.
We need to recognise that everyone is affected by bereavement in a different way. Some will find it incredibly difficult to talk about it and try to return to their usual work patterns, this may or may not be successful in helping them come to terms with what has happened. Others will find it difficult concentrating on work duties and are likely to make mistakes and feel overwhelmed in the early stages of bereavement. The practice as an employer has a duty of care for all its employees and this includes assessing the well-being of employees at work. The practice may be able to signpost a bereaved employee to workplace counselling or bereavement counselling, such as with the charity Cruse Bereavement Care (www.cruse.org.uk).
It is important that the practice manager keeps in touch with the bereaved employee to ascertain how they would like to be contacted (e.g by phone or email), how much information should be passed on to fellow workers (remembering that this information is private under the Data Protection Act), and if the employee wishes to be contacted by colleagues.
The practice manager will need to check whether the employee’s religion or culture requires them to observe any specific practices or make special arrangements. This can involve funerals being held at short notice or religious obligations in attending places of worship. It may also involve attending a funeral abroad with all the possible logistical problems of travel at short notice.
Practices should try and accommodate religious customs as much as is reasonable and practical in order to comply with the requirements under the Equality Act 2010 so as not to discriminate on the grounds of religion or belief.
For many employees, the loss and grief of a bereavement can cause a period of depression and if this is likely to be long-term, for example up to a year, and affects the employee’s ability to undertake normal daily activities, the employee will be covered by the disability discrimination legislation. This includes the right for the employer to make reasonable adjustments that might include a change in hours or duties. Some employees may wish to take a break from work and the practice may be able to agree a period of special leave or a career break, which is likely to be unpaid but may leave the door open for the employee to return to work at an appropriate time in the future.
Once the employee returns to work following a bereavement, they will no doubt need continued support, which should be sensitively managed. There may be a drop in their normal work performance, a difficulty in reaching targets, and perhaps several periods of sickness during the first year following the bereavement. There will be key milestones such as the anniversary of the death.
Patricia Gray is an HR and management consultant, trainer and facilitator in general practice.