A recent social media discussion has got me thinking about the difficulty in returning to work following the loss of your child. For some it be can an unbearable experience that literally pushes many over the edge. I was one of the lucky ones, I for many years have enjoyed an excellent working relationship with both my bosses and my direct reports in the same employment. Bereavement leave, especially time taken for the death of your child is, I guess, not something that enters your mindset through everyday life. That said, it never entered my head that within reason, I would not get given whatever fully-paid time I required to ensure that I was in the best possible place before contemplating returning to work. Some people and way more than I realised until participating in that recent twitter discussion do not have the luxury of understanding bosses and colleagues that I had when I returned to work 2 and half weeks later following the passing of our daughter.
Of course, child bereavement can come in different guises ranging from early-miscarriage, neo-natal death to the passing of a near young-adult. As taboo as the death of a child is to many what I think is undeniable is that the passing of a child that they had met before rather than a baby that passed away either in hospital or in the mothers womb is easier for others to comprehend, bosses and the workplace are no definitely no different.
The rules in the workplace surrounding the bereavement of your child are at best subjective. We may want to believe that all employers, large and small, will be sympathetic to employees—indeed, many do provide discretionary compassionate leave—but the truth is that not all are. A recent survey run on behalf of Child Bereavement UK found that almost a third of those who had suffered the loss of a loved one in the past five years felt they had not been treated compassionately by their employer. A father of a baby born at 26 weeks, who died aged three days, was called during his two-week paternity leave by his employer and told that, because his son was dead, there was no child to look after, so he was being treated as absent without leave and asked when he would be returning to work. The man did not work for a small business that was perhaps a bit backward in its approach to human resources; he worked for a large multinational company with more than 20,000 employees in the UK. Surely, some form of statutory protection is therefore needed.
The recent discussion evoked thoughts that I simply had not considered. In the aftermath of our daughter passing we received a lot of direct support from my employers. Beautiful bouquets of flowers received, cards of support from colleagues, offers to pickup our other children from the playground. I received regular calls from my bosses although I accept that they must have been incredibly hard for them to make. To the credit of my work colleagues, I do not even remember walking through the door, or through the office to my desk on that first morning back although I do remember after sitting at my desk for a few minutes thinking to myself “for god sake someone say something to me!” For others it must have been so horribly different and must have taken an amazing amount of strength to literally get out of bed. I’m sure many quit their jobs through the lack of compassion of bosses and peers, that is incredibly unfair. What if after returning to work, the quality of the employee’s work has suffered? What measures should the employer be taking to ensure that the parent is given every opportunity to get back to the standard of their work prior to losing their child? Should a bereaved father have the same careful treatment as the mother? What about babies lost in early parts of pregnancy, what level of understanding can one expect from those who have not suffered such a loss? Should the bereavement be grounds for flexible working? So many modern-day but key questions which I will explore over the coming weeks and months.
Of course, everyone is different I would be classed in the “workaholic” bracket because I am fortunate enough to work in a profession that I truly love and throwing myself into my project work is my way of dealing with things. That’s how I coped with my marriage breakdown many years before. So, work was my salvation, but it was not about me, it was about Amanda and the other children – the protective partner and father thing!
Thankfully, we are moving into a more modern time where we can expect to be represented by our MP, we can expect to be treated with compassion at work and can expect to receive a certain level of tolerance. Let’s hope HR Managers lead the way and ensure that agreed, reviewed and approved processes are in place to safeguard a parent when they truly need them.