Creating a Culture of Compassion in Your Company

Last year I found myself in an unexpected situation. On a routine trip to Sydney for work, I stopped in to Royal North Shore Hospital to visit my mum who was having some blood tests to determine the cause of a sudden onset of complications that we presumed were related to a grueling six month course of chemotherapy. We were hoping the blood tests would reveal the cause of this pain and dizziness and allow doctors to prescribe a new treatment. Instead, they returned with some results that none of us were expecting. Mum’s cancer had returned for the last time. They gave her three weeks to live.

As you can imagine, my world turned upside down on that cool Sydney day in October last year. Everything came to a sudden and screeching stop and all attention quickly turned to Mum, my family, our relatives and friends. Work (usually at the forefront of my mind) was now buried under layers of shock, sadness, anxiety and confusion. My job was simply not important to me in that moment. At all.

Interestingly, when you look at Fair Work Australia’s recommendations for Bereavement (Compassionate) leave, you could be forgiven for thinking that companies are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Loss and grief simply do not matter. At all. The Fair Work Act of 2009, which lays out the conditions of compassionate leave (that you’ll most likely find in your employment contract), states:

“All employees are entitled to 2 days compassionate leave each time an immediate family or household member dies or suffers a life threatening illness or injury.”

Now, it’s not my place to assume how much leave you might need if your spouse, child, mother father or sibling died. But I can tell you that two days in my case was grossly inadequate. Two days would cover the day that my mother passed away and the day of her funeral. In between those two dates, and for a period of time either side, were some of the most distressing days of my life. There is no way I could have worked; no way I could have managed my team with a clear mind; no way I could have sat through mindless meetings discussing the trivialities of campaigns; no way I could have kept a dry eye when a colleague offered their condolences.

The big question is, where does the burden of cost lie with bereavement leave? It’s not so much an entitlement as it is emergency cover. But is two days really enough?

Like stress, anxiety and bullying, compassion is an area where businesses need to spend more time considering the short term and long term implications on the health and well-being of staff, and of course, to the bottom line. Death, like taxes, happens to us all, but it seems like business isn’t ready to deal with the former. It’s what happens outside of work. It’s personal stuff. We’re only concerned with professional life around here.

IT’S TIME TO RETHINK COMPASSIONATE LEAVE

It might be the case that the Fair Work Ombudsman has a heart of stone. We are given 10 days sick leave per year (and God only knows how that is abused!) so the thought of two days to pick yourself up and get back to work seems quite simply, irrational. I’m not suggesting that companies should be liable for paying employees for extended periods of bereavement leave, but I do think companies need to be more practical in terms of the length of time required to deal with the death of a family member and be open to extending this entitlement.

In the past two months, this matter has been raised again with two of my staff members losing family members. For one of them, the death of a relative was enough for them to resign and make a lifestyle change that had been on her mind for some time. That’s a positive in my book. But yes, it did have implications on the business with us having to replace her role and adjust in her absence. For my other staff member, the news of the death of a family member was sudden and unexpected. It was a situation I could empathise with instantly. I offered him the same unquestioning support that was given to me. “Don’t worry about work, just be with your family.” I checked in with HR to see what we could do. I was given the advice that the Ombudsman gave them. Two days bereavement leave. And then what, I thought? Bereavement is a delicate and very personal journey. For many people, it can take weeks until the thought of returning to work seems remotely possible.

HOW YOU CAN PREPARE FOR THE INEVITABLE

Flexibility around leave is the prerogative of every company. Management can choose how flexible they will be with their staff in such unexpected matters, and I’m sure many companies do show a lot of compassion towards those who have lost a loved one. My management team were awesome. All support, no questions, no hassles. Things were taken care of and I was able to focus my thoughts and attention toward my family. It made a huge difference.

I believe it’s really important that management reacts quickly to the news of a death from a staff member and to address the needs of that person openly and honestly. Here’s a few tips from personal experience:

  • Be human. Don’t engage them as a manager. Be real, show empathy as one human to another. They probably don’t care too much about work at that time and won’t respond well to authority or hierarchy. Tread softly and compassionately.
  • Ask them what they would like to do. Some people won’t want much time off at all. Others will need a considerable amount of leave to cope with their loss. It depends on the relationship and the individual. Treat each case independently and give them the option to decide what happens next.
  • Don’t rush any big decisions. If you do need to negotiate conditions of leave, suggest a time for you to catch up again once they have had time to make personal arrangements with the family.
  • Don’t ignore the situation. Grief is difficult to manage at a personal level and silence only makes it harder. Have your team or company send message(s) of support, flowers or other gestures that show you care.
  • Grief and business don’t mix. A lot of people won’t know what to do or say to a grieving colleague. Talk to your team about it and be sure to offer counselling support to anyone who needs it. Coming back to the office after bereavement leave can be difficult so give your staff the space they need.

From a business point of view, there are obvious business implications with extended bereavement leave. Perhaps the fairest outcome for both the business and the grieving staff member is to offer unpaid leave. Some workplaces may opt for allowing the use of accrued sick leave or annual leave. The amount of time required will be a personal matter, but your company should have a view on what can be offered to all staff members when this matter arises.

However your business chooses to deal with bereavement leave, I suggest you prioritise and practice compassion above all else. The better your company is prepared to deal with this reality, the better your company will function in times of unexpected stress, and the more grateful your staff will be when they return to work.

The three week prognosis that doctors gave my mum was actually incorrect. We only had twelve days in the end. I was with her for ten of those days. They were precious days, and I am forever grateful that I had that time with Mum free from any work distractions. It was only when I returned to work three weeks later that I realised I only had two days bereavement leave. Not only were they well and truly spent, they were well and truly insufficient for what was one of the most tumultuous times of my life. Having an employer that understood that made a world of difference. As did having plenty of sick leave up my sleeve!

What do you think?

Is there a case for more paid compassionate leave? Or is bereavement a matter that sits outside the workplace? I would love to hear how your company deals with grief and loss and any great examples of how companies can show real compassion when it matters.

About:

Paul Chappell is General Manager and Head of Content at The Story Lab Australia, part of the Dentsu Aegis Network.

His experience in content solutions spans over 15 years including roles as Creative Director at Austereo and Content Director at Isobar.

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