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Dealing with death in the workplace

14th Oct 2021
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It’s October 2018 and the company I had been with for a few years is announcing that by the end of the year, they will be making a third of people redundant. Most of us have seen it coming. For some, just starting out their career and enjoying working hard and playing even harder, the thought of being made redundant fills them with dread and anxiety. There are lots of embarrassed whispers about the possibility of ‘moving back in with the parents’. For others, many of whom have been with the company for decades are thrilled at the thought of getting a nice payout from the company they have come to despise like a spouse who you have given your best years to and now can barely be in the same room with. There are talks of early retirement while others contemplate starting their own company. 

I fall into neither of these camps. I know the time has come to leave this job, but don’t quite know what my next move should be.

And then in November, my life changed irrevocably. My mama was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that had started to spread to her brain. She was the most important person in my life. After much googling and some very hazy talks with senior oncologists at UCLH, we pieced together at worst, she might have 6-12 months and at best 3-4 years, but it was most likely going to be about 2 years. 

It was a colleague at work who sat with me on some steps in our office one bitterly cold afternoon and told me candidly that I would be crazy to not take the voluntary redundancy package the company was offering. She knew I had been in the job too long and she also knew I was going through what was going to be the hardest time of my life. She knew it all too well, because only a few years before her Dad had died of cancer.

It was pretty early on into my mum’s cancer diagnosis that I realised, as the expert on all things grief Cariad Llyod describes so perfectly, there is ‘grief club’ - the club that no one really wants to be a member of. I wasn’t in the club yet, but I kept noticing how people inside the club seemed to want to leave the door open so I could peer in and have a look inside. Some who have grieved a big loss, actively seek out those who are facing it.

One very senior colleague booked out a meeting room for two hours mid-week so she could listen to what had happened in the few weeks since my mum’s diagnosis. Both her own parents had died. I found these kinds of chats incredibly helpful because those that are in the club aren’t scared by all the things I was becoming increasingly scared by. They have been through it all. 

I also realised that people who have been through grief are wounded and however long it’s been, the wounds never leave you. Sometimes their raw insight into the reality of death terrified me. Inside my head, I was screaming ...."yes my mum has cancer but she isn’t dead and you talking about your dead loved one is actually scaring me to death….”

So I left the workplace I had known for some years and within a few months started a job at a new company called Salary Finance - an organisation specialising in financial wellbeing. I never told them before I started that my mum was ill because I worried about labels, special treatment, and also not getting the job because they thought I would be ‘too much of a hassle.’ 

I had spent years working on campaigns to bring better awareness around mental health in the workplace and I couldn’t bring myself to tell my prospective employer that it was likely that my mum’s ill health was going to be a bigger priority for me over the coming years than working for them. They claimed to be an organisation that cared about ‘people, not numbers’ but as someone who had spent many years coming up with impressive taglines for organisations, I knew all too well how superficial these can actually be. 

The reality was that within weeks of me starting, I did need to tell them. My mum had numerous hospital appointments and tests. I was committed to going to these because I knew I was the best person to take notes, calm my parents and grill the doctors on treatment plans. What I uncovered over the following weeks, months and eventually a few years of working at Salary Finance was an incredible mix of people who I worked closely with, that in their own unique and quirky ways made me utterly cared for. 

There was my first line manager Andy Davis, a man of few words and huge amounts of integrity. In our weekly meetings, I would sheepishly tell him about the hospital appointments coming up. He never once questioned me attending an appointment and he trusted me implicitly to get my job done. As a result, I felt motivated and confident to balance my mum’s illness during my first year being at the organisation.  Andy left Salary Finance in May 2020. He continues to contact me every few months to see how I am.

There was also my luminous colleague and friend, Sophie Crampton Smith, who after a brief conversation in the loos after work one day, only a few weeks into knowing her, left me a note on my desk the next morning saying she was ‘thinking of me and was always around for a chat if I needed it.’ Quiet, private and utterly moving. 

There will always be a place in my heart for Dhiren Master who oversaw our department and managed me after Andy left. Dhiren wasn’t scared of asking anyone anything and was interested in everything to do with the people he managed. I always felt I could talk to him about anything and everything.

The person I am most grateful to is Ridhima Durham who took over as my line manager towards the end of 2020. Ridhima managed me during what became the hardest time of my life. By November 2020, my mum’s cancer was spreading. She was in hospital and then out again for what was her last Christmas. By January she had whole-brain radiotherapy. It didn’t work. 

In February 2021 we found my mum on the kitchen floor barely conscious with her head bleeding. After about a week we found out she had a severe stroke and that there was nothing more they could do. Her oncologist said it could be weeks, maybe a few months at most. My mum had lost the ability to speak, to walk, to feed herself, to bathe herself, to brush her teeth. We didn’t know how much she could cognitively understand, but there was no question in my mind that I needed to bring her home and look after her. 

I rushed to let Ridhima know that I was incredibly sorry but I would no longer be able to work at Salary Finance. She immediately told me not to think about work or to make any decisions. I have seen this kind of thing before in workplaces when someone has an emergency and is ‘signed off’ and then a day later, the person is getting a request to do a ‘handover’ document.  It wasn’t like this for me at all. 

I had nearly three weeks of not thinking about work. Ridhima told me to contact her only when I was ready. I moved back in with my parents, brought my mum home and got into our new role and routine of caring for her full time. It was bloody hard and I was exhausted, but never had to worry that there were deadlines looming or that there was a meeting in the diary when I was supposed to be ‘back on form.’ 

When we did speak I told her that I wasn’t able to come back to work, that I wasn’t sure if or when I would be able to come back to work again. It would have been fairly easy for us to go our separate ways at that point. 

But Ridihima wasn’t in any rush to make decisions. She understood that I couldn’t work for Salary Finance but she also didn’t want me to leave. We agreed that I would continue to work one day a week. She thought it would allow me some occasional distraction from caring for my mum and keep something for myself. She was right. 

Over the coming months, she continued to send me messages telling me she was thinking of me, sending me little gifts and cards. I felt truly cared for. I knew she wasn’t doing all these things because she thought they were the right thing to do or because she had been on a training course, she was doing them because she had been through grief in her 20s that transformed her and made her into the person she is today. 

My mum died in July 2021. I am writing this having just signed a new contract working three days a week at Salary Finance. My grief is still extremely raw and changing every day. I am not sure what to expect from work - is it going to be beneficial or will it all be too much? Perhaps it will be a bit of both at.  I’m prepared for the ride because I know I have a team of people who I can always be honest with, who will be honest with me, and who really are for people and not just numbers.

Dealing with death at work: seven things for employers to consider 

1. It starts with the interview  

We often talk about someone being ‘the right fit’ for an organisation - but what does that really mean? Creating the right culture doesn’t start with lengthy policy,  but by investing in hiring managers with high emotional intelligence. They are going to be the ones of the front line, so spend some time in an interview to see how they would approach challenges related to the teams they will be managing. As an interviewee, I was apprehensive to share details of my caring responsibilities at Salary Finance because of a fear of not getting the job. Organisations spend a lot of time and energy asking employees to trust and engage them once they are already in the role, but often miss the opportunity in the interview process. 

 2. Act inclusively - consider older women in low paid positions

My story with my employer has been extremely positive. I know many people who have had awful experiences. I wasn’t managing a large team, I wasn’t customer-facing, I can work very flexibly and I don’t have children. There are many roles in organisations, including mine, where it might have been much harder to give the kind of allowances I was given during my mum’s illness. This is the reality of the world of work we live in today. There isn’t one solution to this, but it’s important for employers to consider how they can be agile in their response to a situation an employee is facing. Caring responsibilities might not be temporary and 1 in 4 women aged 50-64 has caring responsibilities for a loved one. This group is also more likely to be in low paid positions whilst also reducing their working hours because of their caring responsibilities. As our population mortality rate continues to rise, employers need to think creatively about how they can support their people to look after sick and elderly relatives. 

3. Encourage honest conversations (not just in difficult times) 

I was very clear with Salary Finance about what I could do and what I needed during my mum’s illness. They also listened to what I said and acted on that. There was an open dialogue about what was going to work for both of us. Neither of us was afraid of saying the wrong thing or dancing around the difficult topics. The reality was that these types of honest conversations had started before I needed to stop work. This meant that when the time came for us to talk, we already had a foundation of trust that made it much easier for us to communicate. 

4. Consider your compassionate leave policy

The question of whether there should be statutory compassionate leave in the UK remains a hotly debated topic. Without statutory compassionate leave, there are always going to be those that benefit and those who lose out because of the nature of their job and their employer. Having a proper policy in place is important, but employers also need to be flexible to accommodate everyone’s unique caring and bereavement situations. 

5. Remember that grief doesn’t stop after compassionate leave ends

Our society is geared towards ‘making progress’ and this has never been more true than when it comes to the process of grief. The famous ‘5 stages of grief’ working in a linear way has now been widely discredited. Grief is messy and it can occur in the strangest of places and times, even years after a person has died. Employers need to be attuned to this and ensure those open and honest conversations are happening after a person is back from their compassionate leave. 

6. It’s always better to ask than say nothing at all

Death is still such a taboo in our society, we often don’t know what to say or even whether to say anything to someone who is grieving. We fear we might upset them or make them feel uncomfortable. The reality is when you’re going through something so big, it never leaves you and one of the most painful things is when others don’t mention it. Even if the person grieving doesn’t want to talk about it, acknowledging their loss is always better than pretending the elephant in the room isn’t there. 

7. Accept that change isn’t going to happen overnight 

Death and grief is still a major taboo in society. Change is happening and will continue to happen but even with the right policies and training in your organisation, there are broader societal factors at play. Start small and encourage people to share their stories. There are some great organisations out there offering advice and help for those who are grieving and for organisations: Cruse bereavement support, The Loss Foundation, The Good Grief Trust are three that I have found helpful. 

 

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