The loss of a loved one can be one of those heartbreaking and ‘derailing’ moments in life. And it’s important to recognise that the significance of a loss can vary between individuals.
While the Fair Work Act 2009 only stipulates compassionate leave in certain circumstances*, we know that all losses have the potential to derail us. The loss of a close friend, a colleague, a beloved pet can all potentially bring on what’s known as ‘career shock’.
So, while legally workplace bereavement policies do not have to extend outside one’s immediate family or household, it’s important to be mindful of the individual and the very real impacts. That might not necessarily mean widening the scope of your bereavement leave policies (though we would encourage you to consider this in the context of supporting your people), it does mean leading with compassion and empathy, and recognising that each individual manages grief in their own unique way. What’s important, is how we support them.
The unexpected loss of a loved one is one of the most common traumatic experiences and is associated with the development of mental health issues and, in a workplace context, can lead to low performance or even premature resignation.
Our recent Crises and Career Shocks Transition Guide states: “Those who face loss can experience a great sense of burden, shock, confusion and grief, and the effects of loss and grief may continue after people return to work. Those who experience major loss also tend to take increased sick leave, reduce work hours, show increased redundancy rates, and have an increased likelihood of changing jobs.”
At an organisational level, when individuals are feeling the effects of loss, it may present in the form of increased absenteeism, increased presenteeism, impacts to the wider team culture and even high turnover.
First, like all transitions, an individual approach is key. That means putting aside your own feelings and assumptions, and talking with the individual.
Remember what we said earlier, while you may not have grieved for your family pet for long, someone else might be significantly impacted by the loss of their beloved animal.
Start by acknowledging the loss, and make sure you ask the individual: What do you need at this time?
Next, make sure you keep talking, and allow the individual to make decisions about how they’re supported. For example, they may not want you to take work off their plate while they’re grieving. Remember, each individual is different and will need a different level of support.
Finally, consider increasing leave entitlements if needed. Some people are going to need more time than others. If you’re not in a position to extend compassionate leave, then you might want to look at other opportunities to allow the individual to take the time they need, such as personal leave or purchasing leave entitlement.
At a whole-of-organisation preventative level you can develop and promote policies so your people know they can get the support they need during times of loss. That can also mean training your managers so they know how to support individuals through these rocky times. A strong foundation of support can help mitigate some of the negative effects that can present during this transition.
It’s important to note that even in the most supportive workplace culture, it’s not always easy to recognise when someone is struggling.
Grief can come at you from all angles. Sometimes it can shock you months after the loss.
It’s important for individuals to keep communicating with their employer. Remember, it’s OK to struggle. Most organisations will want to do all they can to support you through your loss. The important thing is to speak up when you’re struggling, and ask for any workplace adjustments you need during this time.
You might also want to seek support from your valued colleagues at this time. Social connections can be really important during times of distress, combined with routine, structure and self-care.
In addition, make sure you seek external help if you need it. That could mean a conversation with your GP, or accessing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) through your organisation if it is available. Beyond Blue also has a great resource that may be helpful – Grief and loss – Beyond Blue.
The loss of a loved one is a huge transition. Like all transitions, there’s opportunity for growth, both at an organisational and individual level. It all starts with having an individual, tailored approach to support. Loss is never an easy thing to deal with, but with the right supports in place we can navigate this transition well together.
*Under the Fair Work Act, compassionate leave can only be taken if:
An employee’s immediate family includes their spouse or former spouse, de facto partner or former de facto partner, child, parent, grandparent, grandchild or sibling. Immediate family also includes the immediate family of the employee’s spouse or de facto partner (or former spouse or de facto partner), step-relations or adoptive relations.
Employees can take compassionate leave for other relatives (for example, cousins, aunts and uncles) if they are a member of the employee’s household or if their employer agrees.