Being given just three days compassionate leave following the death of your father might seem inconceivable to most, but that’s exactly what happened to Sally-Ann.
This is her #DyingMattersAtWork story.
Getting back into the workplace
“It was much more difficult than expected”, according to Sally-Ann, who, after several years away to look after her children, had returned to the legal profession, and a job that she had ‘worked so hard to get.’
But things didn’t go as planned. Having only just resumed her career, Sally-Ann received the news that her father had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
As if that wasn’t enough, just a short time later, her father’s partner contacted her in a distressed state. She had also been diagnosed with terminal cancer and would be unable to look after Sally-Ann’s father.
It was, says Sally-Ann, ‘without hesitation’ that she arranged for her father to live with her and her family, moving him from Northumberland to Sussex.
But with her father’s increasing palliative care needs, and regular trips to the hospital, Sally-Ann felt torn between looking after him full-time and staying in a job for which she had spent years preparing.
“I cannot imagine what it is like for people who are struggling to hold down a job and care for a loved one who is dying without help.”
Fortunately she was able to reduce her hours, and hire a live-in carer for her father, but that came with a considerable emotional compromise: an enormous sense of guilt at not being able to fully devote her time to his care.
Six months after her father moved in, he died.
Unbelievably, Sally-Ann was given only three days of compassionate leave by her former employer. She was back at work just one week after her father’s death: his funeral took place on a Friday, and she was back to work by Monday.
Whilst her colleagues and senior partner were kind to Sally-Ann when she returned to work, she says – somewhat unexpectedly – that she actively asked them not to be. She didn’t want sympathy, saying that “it felt easier for me to hold myself together” without it.
With the benefit of hindsight, she reflects now that she clearly needed more time to process her grief. It may resonate with many of us that she felt, at the time, that it was easier to just ‘keep a stiff upper lip.’
“It would have been more considerate and compassionate of my employer if I had been given some more time to grieve.”
What could have been done differently?
Grief hits us often when we least expect it, or can be triggered for no specific reason, and it is important for employers to recognise this. When coming back to work, employees may need some flexibility until they hit their stride again.
In Sally-Ann’s case, it’s unclear whether her former employer had any workplace guidance on how to communicate with, or what to do, when an employee suffers a bereavement.
She says that she wishes this had been different: “I think it is worth any employer making sure written workplace guidance around death and dying is available, so that both employees and employers have a clearer idea what to expect when facing death, dying or grief.”
Why support bereaved employees?
Offering empathy and compassion in general is a good place to start. But specifically how an employer supports employees – who could be caring for a loved one, or grieving – can make all the difference, not only to their employee, but to the employer and the workplace as a whole.
When an employee feels supported in their workplace by colleagues and their employer, they are less likely to feel the need to leave work or find a new employer that can support their needs.
“They needed space to be with family and friends and process what they had been through, without worrying about work. I did not shy away from conversations about their loss, I made the effort to be empathetic to their needs.”
Sally Ann’s legacy
Since becoming an MP in 2019, two members of Sally Ann’s team experienced unexpected and ‘shockingly tragic’ traumatic family bereavements.
It was her own experience of losing her father and going back to work that compelled her to make sure that, as a manager, she offered her employees a much more compassionate environment.
She says that her instinct to give them both as much time as they needed – on full pay – was ‘the right thing to do.’
This compassionate workplace experience had a significant impact on both of her team members. One came back to work after three weeks, but the other did not return – making the decision to focus on their family.
Why Dying Matters in the workplace
Whilst Sally Ann’s negative experience eventually had a positive outcome, enabling her to make a tangible and meaningful change to her employees’ lives, it is unfortunately not a unique one.
Stigma around grieving, and a lack of understanding about what it means to be ill and what happens when you’re dying, mean that too many of us are struggling to cope when faced with life’s inevitable challenges. The workplace is no exception.
Research by Hospice UK has shown that 57% of employees have experienced a bereavement in the last five years. Every day, more than 600 people quit their jobs to look after older and disabled relatives.
Shockingly, fewer than one in five managers feel very confident supporting someone they manage with a bereavement.
Could your workplace benefit?
Could you and your colleagues benefit from dedicated wellbeing support for staff and employers? Then we can help.
Get in touch with our wellbeing support programme to see how your organisation can be well set up to look after employees through grief, illness and caring.
What can you do now?
By talking with those around you, you can help your workplace support colleagues who are ill, caring for those around them, or who have lost someone close to them.
Discover how you can have meaningful and compassionate conversations with other people at work, in the community or at home. Our short quiz will show you where you stand on the compassionate superhero scale and offer some tips to improve on each of the six superpower skills.
About Dying Matters Awareness Week
We’ve shared Sally-Ann’s story as part of Dying Matters Awareness Week 2023, which focused on Dying Matters at work.
We spend so much of our lives at work – and we shouldn’t have to hide our experiences of death and dying from our colleagues, our peers, or our bosses.
With your help, we can create open and compassionate society where we are comfortable facing the realities of dying, death and grief.
Thank you to Sally-Ann for sharing her story.
Webinar: How to talk about death at work
On Thursday 11 May, Compassionate Employers hosted a webinar on 'How to talk about death at work' for Dying Matters Awareness Week.
The session featured Simon Blake, CEO Mental Health First Aid England, Aongola Victor Simuyemba, Bereavements Lead at Monzo and Faith Holloway, Compassionate Employers Programme Lead at Hospice UK and provided practical advice, tips and tricks on how to start workplace conversations on this often taboo subject.
Dying Matters at Work stories
Read these powerful and moving stories of people's varying experiences of caring and grief in the workplace.
'Someone has died…I can’t come to my interview'