Taking time for Grief - by Jessie Williams
An HR advisor asked me at the How do you Deal with Grief and Death and Business event (run by Moral Fairground) in Melbourne recently,
‘What advice do you have for me as HR when it comes to managing bereavement leave’, I hastened to point out that supporting working people in their grief is more a function of good leadership and positive culture. The expression on her face didn’t change and I realised that I my answer didn’t cut it, for her at least.
We managed to find each other after the panel. ‘So, what’s the question behind your question?’ I asked.
With tears in her eyes, she told me of her recent father’s death. She told me that it wasn’t an expected death. She was still grappling with the impact of his dying and was struggling to make sense of her experience.
And speaking of work….she went on to reflect with me about a recent exchange with another HR professional who argued that a woman from his workplace who had a miscarriage should take sick leave, not bereavement leave as it was a ‘health condition’.
My HR companion was incensed as she recalled her conversation. That the experience of miscarrying was one that carried emotions as requiring equal attention to any need for physical rest was a no-brainer to us both.
I get told a lot of stories in my job. When people are suffering, they instantly connect to other people’s suffering with empathy and insight.
It was in that moment of the conversation that I realised the answers to her original question would best be served by even more questions:
How might HR take the lead in changing how we do grief in business?
Are we able to tap into HR personal experience just as we do for authentic leadership?
What practical steps can HR take to support a compassionate culture where good support is provided by peers?
I’ve been in multiple conversations for over three years now with leaders on how to make compassion come alive for grief at work. And now it’s time to get pointy. Bereavement leave is 2 days in Australia. It would take 2 days to get over a bad haircut. Ludicrous for someone you love. Not to mention what we need to do as a society to get caring for our elderly done without someone having to leave their job entirely.
A friend told me:
“I came back from the UK and my team knew I went home for my brother’s funeral who died from suicide. They asked me about the weather, the flight, but not one person asked me how the funeral was. I thought they could all go to hell from that day on”
This person stayed at the job, but she did that thing called ‘presenteeism’ and malaise set in.
Many people need work when they are grieving. Many people feel closer to their colleagues than they do their family. The experience of grief is one of suffering but it’s also one of deep love and gratitude.
How might we recognise the uniqueness of this stage of life and have meaningful exchanges between leadership, HR and staff that navigate the work that needs doing and the feelings that need ‘holding’.
Bereavement leave is 2 days in Australia. We need to make it longer. It’s complicated but it’s not complex. Let’s not over think it too much. Kindness and productivity are pretty simple things.
Getting bereavement leave right is going to take more conversation and more stories, but it’s worth it. Set a time to talk bereavement with your HR person today. Or if you are HR, let’s start the conversation together. Would love to know your thoughts
Oh and while you’re here - Sign the petition https://www.change.org/p/increase-leave-to-grieve-in-the-national-employment-standards