Articles - 11/10/2019

Anticipatory grief in the workplace: How flexible should employers be?

CPJ Anticipatory Grief At Work

Anticipatory grief in the workplace: How can employers be more flexible?

There’s typically plenty of information and literature on how to support staff at work following the death of a loved one. But what about the support available to employees in the period before someone close them dies?

Worryingly, according to our recent Grieving at Work campaign, only 32% of people surveyed told everyone at work straight away once they discovered a relative had a life-threatening illness or injury. 32% waited until the death was imminent to tell work colleagues, while 19% waited until after the death to share their situation.

For those who are choosing to share this information with their workplace, are employers doing enough to support them? Read on for our advice and suggestions to employers who are dealing with staff experiencing anticipatory grief.

What is anticipatory grief?

First things first, it’s important to clarify what is meant by anticipatory grief. This is a distinct type of grief in that it occurs before death as opposed to after. Essentially, it involves grieving for the impending death of a loved one, who has been given a terminal diagnosis, whilst they are still alive. It’s not something that many people consider or are even aware of, hence it often gets overlooked.

If a loved one’s health has been deteriorating for a long time, their death can and will still come as a shock. Experiencing grief at this stage is by no means a substitute for later grieving, neither does it mean that people who experience this type of grief have it any easier. However, it can provide an opportunity to say important things to a dying loved one, such as reconciling any differences or granting forgiveness. This might offer some people a sense of closure and peace following a loved one’s death.

Working from home

Dealing with the knowledge of a loved one’s imminent death can be overwhelming. Grief is widely known to impair various cognitive abilities such as concentration skills, memory, multitasking, learning and regulation of emotions – all of which are crucial in a working environment. If your employee is evidently struggling to cope with their anticipatory grief, permitting them to work from home may ease any discomfort they feel about expressing their grief at work or any lapse in skills or abilities they are currently facing.

Less time spent travelling to, and being in the office, also enables them to spend more quality time with their loved one. Interestingly, of the respondents in our survey, only 17% of staff in this stage of grief were permitted to work from home.

Flexible hours & short-notice holiday

The most common demonstration of an employer’s willingness to support grieving staff, in our survey, was with regards to flexible hours and taking holiday without giving the usual required notice (permitted for 22% of respondents). Others (18%) were offered extra paid holiday on top of their usual compassionate leave.

Making these options available to your employee who is experiencing anticipatory grief can be invaluable, especially if they need this time to go to hospital appointments with their loved one or make arrangements for their care. This time might also be used if their relative has a sudden decline in their health.

Offer them a break from customer-facing roles

Anticipatory grief can provoke, as expected, many negative emotions. There may be days when your employee struggles with regulating these feelings when around other people. If your work environment entails interaction with customers, consider whether this is appropriate for your employee and ask them how they feel about doing this. It might be the case that they would appreciate not having to ‘put on a brave face’ and would be more comfortable undertaking an alternative work task that does not involve dealing with customers. The findings of our Grieving at Work campaign revealed that only 8% of employees in customer-facing roles were offered this opportunity by their employers.

Be supportive

Shockingly, 17 % of people in our study whose loved one had a life-threatening illness, were not offered any of the flexibility options above by their employer. Similarly, only 40% of people felt they were ‘very well supported’ at work when they made their circumstances known to employers. We believe these figures need to change.

Ultimately, no matter how much warning a person has, the imminent death of a loved one is something that most of us would struggle to comes to terms with. As your employee navigates this extremely distressing time, try to be as flexible and supportive as you possibly can. This might mean checking in with them frequently about how they are coping, asking them how you can help and letting them know you are there for them.

For further revealing statistics about grief in the workplace, and insights on how to be a more supportive employer, read the findings of our Grieving at Work study and share them with your team.