Academic employers can do more to support grieving students and staff

When my mother died in 2019, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know how to deal with this situation. When I first found out she was dying, instead of distracting myself with my postgraduate research, I spent many of my work hours searching for support from my department, supervisor and university, without getting very far.

Ultimately, I was not offered any bereavement leave but took unpaid leave instead. When I returned to the office, it was not adequately acknowledged why I had been absent for months. At the time I felt I should have been treated differently and I left this position soon after returning. Although I am now happier as a researcher in a different area, it did make me wonder why bereavement and grief are such difficult experiences for workplaces to manage. How can workplaces become more supportive environments for bereaved people?

After recognising that many colleagues were experiencing bereavement during the Covid-19 pandemic, Erica Borgstrom, a medical anthropologist who runs a death and bereavement research group at the Open University, UK, identified that there is a lack of understanding around employees’ experiences of bereavement leave. Her group conducted a large survey into the experiences of bereaved people in higher education institutions across the UK.

They found evidence that workload and financial pressures are major factors that can make people return to work prematurely after bereavement. They also found that more than one-third of the 500 respondents did not know their university had a bereavement policy, and nearly half did not know where to find it. The team also found that nearly all bereavement policies specified two weeks for grieving the loss of a child, but other types of loss were down to the discretion of each university, department or line manager. This in practice led to employees taking either annual or sick leave to complete ‘death admin’ and attend funerals.

Staff can feel aggrieved by this as grief isn’t a holiday and sick leave implies that grief is an illness, but it can be the only way employees can access pay when taking time away from work, explains Borgstrom.

Management matters

Additionally, when line managers exercise discretion and offer leave using their own judgement and compassion, it can lead to inequitable outcomes, according to Borgstrom. Some managers may not have received adequate training on how to handle conversations around bereavement or do not have a holistic understanding of different types of losses.

Beth French, director of Let’s Talk About Loss, a bereavement charity for young people, agrees that line managers are key for determining if a bereaved person’s experiences of leave are positive. ‘Young grievers have told us that if your line manager doesn’t feel confident in offering you support, they will just ignore the issue and try and pretend you are not grieving,’ French says.

French also agrees that a lack of formal bereavement leave is a common problem, leading to employees feeling undervalued and unsupported. ‘Having an inflexible policy around bereavement leave and support is going to really negatively impact how employees feel about the company,’ she says.

It is also common for bereavement leave to be given immediately after the person has died. But sometimes, you need leave later down the line, French explains. This is because specific anniversaries can bring up painful emotions for grievers, and it is important for employers to recognise this by not having a time limit on when bereavement leave can be taken.

French emphasises that policies that demonstrate trust and respect between the organisation and employer will help bereaved workers. As more people than ever are looking for workplaces that have good support networks and flexible policies, the more adaptable you are the more you will get back in terms of the employees’ loyalty and motivation.

Pressure to perform

Richy Hetherington is a teaching lecturer at Newcastle University, UK. His 15-year-old son Thomas passed away in 2022. Hetherington agrees that policies and support around bereavement are not always adequate, particularly when considering the longer-term impact of a serious loss. Hetherington points to wider cultural issues in academia as contributing towards an unsupportive environment for the bereaved, as overwork glorification and intense competition for grants and temporary contracts can put grieving people at a disadvantage.

If you get dealt a bad card in your life – whether this be a serious bereavement, a significant health issue, or through experiencing a traumatic event – this can stop you progressing further in your career, says Hetherington. Although he is in his mid-to-late career, he has still felt career precarity due to his loss and says he will wind down his research career earlier than he previously expected.

Academia rewards those who can make hardship invisible

Krista Lyn Harrison

Hetherington also points out that the precarity inherent in academia’s job market means that those on short-term contracts may not feel comfortable taking time off, as in this early career stage it’s integral to form connections and publish papers.

When a serious bereavement occurs, it can feel like the large amounts of emotional resilience required to work through it is already in demand, as academia requires intense thinking and can lead to burnout even in the most ideal circumstances, says Hetherington. Brain fog – a lack of concentration and focus – can interfere with work, and as noted by Krista Lyn Harrison, an associate professor who experienced two bereavements in quick succession, ‘academia rewards those who can make hardship invisible, who can be productive amid and despite crisis’.

This sentiment is echoed by others such as Antonia Pritchard, a reader researching the genetics of melanoma at the University of the Highlands and Islands, UK. Pritchard experienced the bereavement of a close colleague and friend, Sharon Hutchison. Hutchison was working in Pritchard’s melanoma research group when she was unexpectedly diagnosed with a melanoma herself at the start of 2019. Hutchison passed away in December 2019.

Supporting colleagues

Hutchison was personally well supported by their university during her illness. However, as Pritchard was going with Hutchison to appointments, it was not fully appreciated that she also needed fewer rigid expectations.

After Hutchison’s passing, Pritchard used her lunchtime breaks to support Hutchison’s parents with tasks such as clearing her flat. ‘I was in what I can only describe really as a daze for three months after Sharon passed, I would wake up every morning feeling utterly exhausted,’ says Pritchard.

When global lockdowns began in March 2020 and working from home became normal, this led to some respite as it gave Pritchard the flexibility to work at her own pace. ‘It really honestly helped me a lot, just not having to force myself out of bed and being able to get things done in a way which suited how I was doing at the time,’ she says.

It would have been helpful for someone to ask ‘Are you doing OK?’

Antonia Pritchard

The rest of Pritchard’s team have also found Hutchison’s death very difficult to process. Pritchard says that as a cancer research group, they do speak about death more than other workplaces might, but it’s usually abstract, and conversations around death and terminal illness are still hard.

Pritchard and her team have found it valuable to fundraise money for melanoma research in Hutchison’s memory and appreciate that their university celebrated their achievements in this area. She has found speaking about this fundraising and Hutchison publicly, such as through International Women’s Day events, to also be helpful for remembering Hutchison and the work she was passionate about. However, there is still an awkwardness around death even in these circumstances, and it would have been helpful for someone to ask ‘Are you doing OK?’ after giving these emotionally difficult talks, says Pritchard.

There was also an unexpected level of press attention to manage when mainstream media found out Hutchison had passed away from the cancer that she researched. Although some journalists handled this sensitively, others did not, and Pritchard believes communications teams could become more hands-on for those experiencing press attention during bereavement.

Pritchard also experienced several other bereavements which hit her hard, and she found these more difficult to speak about, such as the sudden loss of her dog. She struggled with this loss more than she expected. ‘It was probably an accumulation of things as my dog died around 18 months after Sharon died, but I just had enough,’ Pritchard says. It took two years to feel ready but Pritchard now volunteers at the hospice where Sharon spent her final days and finds it helpful for processing and normalising loss.

Ultimately, grief does not fit into neat linear stages and people’s individual experiences cannot always be mapped or rigidly prepared for by organisations. However, having a supportive work environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their needs around bereavement is a good place to start.

Tips for approaching death and bereavement in the workplace

  • Avoid creating hierarchies of grief in bereavement policies, where policies dictate how much time off is needed according to normative ideas around families. This can ignore the griever’s relationship to the deceased. Losses can carry unexpected emotional consequences and when policies are too narrow it can invalidate employees’ grief.
  • Help reduce the stigma of bereavement and grief in your workplace. Consider acknowledging Dying Matters Awareness Week in your newsletter or social media platforms.
  • Encourage your organisation or department to undertake training such as Hospice UK’s Compassionate Employers workplace programme.
  • Don’t fear saying the wrong thing, as sometimes saying anything is better than saying nothing at all – many people assume that grieving people want to be left alone but this can depend on the individual.
  • When reviewing job and funding applications, be open to individuals disclosing periods of bereavement or caring for terminally ill loved ones to help put their career in context.
  • Advocate for flexible working policies in your workplace, recognising that death and illness can cause cataclysmic changes in caring responsibilities, sleep patterns and personal wellbeing.
  • Signpost policies around bereavement so that employees can access information easily.
  • Consider how your organisation can assist with managing journalistic enquiries if a death attracts press attention and evaluate if there is sufficient training on this type of media relations issue.