Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Should we all get bereavement pay?

When someone close to you dies, there are often a lot of unpleasant realities to deal with.

Being immersed in grief doesn’t stop funerals needing to be organised, doesn’t stop everyday bills coming in and doesn’t stop having to make that dreaded call to work.

We were on holiday when my wife died.  It was the first official break we were taking as a family unit, and it meant I wasn’t due back at work immediately regardless of what had happened.

But death isn’t really the sort of life event that you wait until Monday to inform people about.  “Err, I’m not coming in today because my wife died last week, hopefully I’ll be better tomorrow.”  I’m not Borat.

My employer was initially very supportive.  Adopting the take-all-the-time-you-need attitude, but in reality they couldn’t possibly have meant that.

As ‘all the time I needed’ could have realistically been years, and I don’t think it would have been right for me to expect, or legally demand, that my employer kept paying me and keep my position open for an eventual return.

It was clear I wasn’t heading back to work quickly, and that if the only excuse I could have offered for that was grief, or not being ready to return, then we’d have been on collision course, and I’m not sure it’s an ‘excuse’ that would have continued to curry the same favor.

But grief had taken hold, and I was incapable of doing my job.  My ability to focus and not get distracted every ten seconds had vanished.  My decision-making skill, ability even, was hindered like never before.   It would have been a potential disaster for everyone, least of all my child and I, if I’d have attempted a swift return to work.

Thus, like so many others, I went to see my GP, who subsequently referred me to folks who know what they are talking about when it comes to bereavement, and all parties I interacted with me, agreed, and concluded a return to work was impractical and not possible on medical grounds.

I read a lot of the example cases on the recent BBC piece on whether bereavement leave should be mandatory for employers.  It would seem a common theme of these tales, was eventual pressure being exerted by employers on their grieving staff to return to their jobs.

Without knowing the detail of all the cases it’s difficult to pass comment, but while it looks terribly unsympathetic, certainly employers have an obligation to all their other staff, and may not be in a position to afford to cover grief-induced absences.  Sympathy versus harsh business reality.  There’s only going to be one winner.

The most near-sensible suggestion I read amongst that piece is to enshrine bereavement leave in the same way that maternity leave is protected.  That there’s some pay protectioon, but that it’s more about the fact that an employee can take time away from work if they need to, and not fear losing their job permanently.

But I say it’s ‘near-sensible’ as – and pointed out in that article too – where do we draw the line, and how do we define the gravity of grief?

I worked with a woman that was so immensely moved by one of her pet cat’s dying, that she felt unable to come to work.  Whereas I’ve worked with others that have lost parents, and only been off to see them get buried.

Do we protect everyone from any possible type of loss?

Creating working rights that weren’t open to criticism of instantly being unfair would be a mammoth, nigh impossible, task.

Perhaps they need to look at things from a different perspective, and those society dictates are the best judges of a person’s ability to work, the health profession, are armed with the ability to declare someone as unfit to work due to grief?

Rather than grief being the reason for symptoms that can be described as something else, like stress or depression.

It feels like a doctor has to look for an alternate reason for someone being unable to do their job, other than because they are in a stage of grief that simply prevents them from doing so.

Sadly, a very, very, very, grey area.