Mental Health, Loss and Bereavement

Post author image. Guest Editor

With the UK’s COVID-19 death toll the worst in Europe, many of us will be touched by death, bereavement and grief. Employers must stop shying away from discussing the deeply uncomfortable topic of death. Businesses have an increasing duty of care to protect the physical and mental health and safety of their people. The experience of bereavement is unique to each person, but being in a supportive environment which allows someone to express their feelings is often helpful. Now is the time for business leaders to step up and share the responsibility of talking openly about death, listening and supporting colleagues.

Download Business in the Community’s (BITC) toolkit on death, bereavement and grief, produced in partnership with National Grid and KPMG, for information on how responsible businesses can best support their employees to cope with bereavement.

Mark Allan, Commercial Director UK Insurance at Bupa and a member of BITC’s Wellbeing Leadership Team writes about the crucial role of leadership in times of loss.

As employers, we have a duty of care to be there beyond the HR policy.  We need to find a way to make it easier to talk about death in our organisations to ensure we do what’s needed to be by the side of our people, when they might need us most.

Mark Allan, Commercial Director UK Insurance, Bupa

It was my eighth birthday. I’d just opened my presents and the phone rang. A proper 1980’s ring that got everyone’s attention and my Mum suggested that I answer it as it would be my grandparents wishing me a happy birthday. It wasn’t. It was the mother in law of my Dad’s best friend ringing to let us know that at just 32 he’d passed away in the night from cancer. Beyond seeing people zapped on cartoons, that was my first real experience of death and the impact that it had on those around it. It all seemed very sad, especially for his five and seven year old sons who’d just lost their Daddy. I remember not looking forward to seeing them as I didn’t think I’d know what to say and how to act. Could we still have fun? I’d hoped their Mum didn’t speak to me.

Years later, sat around my Grandmother’s death bed watching her slip away, I recall feeling awkward about how it would be after she’d gone. How would I talk about the loss to my Grandad or my Mum? I’d come home from university and figured it would be easier for me to go back there so I didn’t have to engage in any of that. At least until I came back for the funeral.

One by one my remaining Grandparents passed away, and as the eldest Grandchild I was asked each time to perform a eulogy. It was thought to be easier for me to do it as my parents and uncles and aunts would be too sad, and after all I was used to doing big presentations to lots of people so I’d be fine (that was usually how the request came in!). As the first time had gone well, I’d secured the job  for good and in many ways it was helpful, because it gave me a formal role and a reason to talk about them rather than hope I didn’t have to have any awkward chats. I had permission to speak and no option to hide from it.

What I remember is that each time it was therapeutic to my family that we had the chance to discuss my grandparent’s life, their achievements and the things that made each of them special to us, even when that made us laugh out loud at their expense. Each time, spanning about 15 years, the reading itself got more difficult. Easy to write but harder to deliver, as my life experience made me feel loss more than the previous time. As the reality dawned that we’re not immortal, but that the day when our families see us off will come to us all. I hope it made me understand it all a bit better and improve my empathy to realise that avoidance because it’s uncomfortable is not a very good answer.

I’m lucky enough that so far, that is pretty much the extent of my experience of loss of people close to me. Not bad for 47. However I’ve become much more aware of my own mortality, often thinking that the half time whistle blew a few years ago and then imagining the year 2050 and wondering if I’d make it there. I don’t like the thought of dying but I’m not sure why, other than I quite like living and I wouldn’t want anyone to be sad. I guess at least I can be happy that I won’t have to feel uncomfortable in talking to anyone about the fact I’ve gone! I do think though, that if I lost someone really close, I’d want to talk about them with people that cared. And I hope that I’d be grateful that people had taken the time and effort to check in on me. Even at work.

In fact, definitely at work. As that would be the time when I’d have to accept that life was going on, and the time when I wouldn’t want people to avoid what had happened. I’d want my return to “normality” to be as easy as it could be and I’d want to be working for an organisation and a leader that did more than just consult the policy and give me two weeks compassionate leave. I’d want sincerity and I’d want understanding and I’d want them to know that I might cry, but that I’d still be glad that they took the deep breath and had the courage to talk to me about what had happened, who I’d lost and what I needed.

I’d want my return to “normality” to be as easy as it could be and I’d want to be working for an organisation and a leader that did more than just consult the policy and give me two weeks compassionate leave. I’d want sincerity and I’d want understanding and I’d want them to know that I might cry, but that I’d still be glad that they took the deep breath and had the courage to talk to me about what had happened, who I’d lost and what I needed.

We’re in difficult and challenging times. I’ve seen death at work now many times both directly and indirectly through a range of causes including more recently through COVID-19. I’ve become more convinced than ever that as a leader, being brave enough to embrace the topic of death is an integral part of my job. And as employers, we have a duty of care to be there beyond the HR policy.  We need to find a way to make it easier to talk about death in our organisations so that we can ensure that we can do what’s needed to be by the side of our people when they might need us most.

Have you thought about your role as a leader in the handling of death and bereavement? Has your employer gone beyond the standard time off policy and been thoughtful about what is needed to be there for your team? Maybe with some thought, effort and investment we can remove the awkwardness and avoidance and play our role in making the route back to some kind of normality just that little bit easier?

By the way, after years of avoidance and hiding from death as a topic, I don’t find it any easier yet to embrace. I’m still the eight year old at heart, dreading seeing my five and seven year old friends. I’ve learned though, that by making it less about my feelings, and focusing only on what that person needs, from a simple “how are you doing” to a period of greater support we can make a real difference that will be valued more than you think.

About Business in the Community’s Wellbeing Agenda

BITC defines ‘wellbeing’ as the mutually supportive relationship between an individual’s mental, physical, social and financial health and their personal wellbeing.

Taking a whole organisation approach to embedding wellbeing into an organisational culture is key to achieving maximum impact. Wellbeing should be positioned as a strategic boardroom issue supporting thriving people, thriving business and thriving communities.

Find out more about BITC’s work on wellbeing