Memoleaves is calling on the Australian Federal Government to increase the number of days for bereavement leave to 10 days. As a community we should offer those experiencing a bereavement, reasonable time to grieve. We believe there should also be the possibility for a individual suffering from the loss of a close relationship, to take up to 12 weeks leave without pay. There is scope for this to be supported by Centrelink Bereavement payment, if eligible. More recent models of bereavement recognise the oscillating nature of grief; where our view moves from a loss orientation to an orientation of restoring our changed world in some way. Taking into account the cyclical repetitious nature of bereavement, we ask that this leave is available to people for up to 12 months after the loss of a loved one, and to include casual, contract and temporary employment conditions. Thus providing job security for all. Read our infographic here.
Current Bereavement entitlement in Australia
The National Employment Standards (a set of rules that describes all the entitlements for any employee in Australia), contains the conditions of employment; including leave entitlements that must be given to each employee in an Australian workplace. It informs each employment contract and union agreement. On bereavement, it specifies that a full-time, part-time or a casual employee, is entitled to 2 days paid leave to grieve, which can be taken as consecutive days or separately. A person identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander, similarly is entitled to 2 days compassionate leave for Sorry Business.
There are provisos in the National Employment Standards for 10 days Carers leave/Personal leave, what is colloquially called “sick leave”. This could be used to care for sick dependents, or personal illnesses. For those experiencing a bereavement who are already on social support benefits, Centrelink provides up to 14 weeks financial support at a higher rate than normal. This indicating the government recognises that bereavement can impair someone’s ability to seek employment. Its ironic that in contrast,the people who administer this payment, as determined by the public sector awards, are only entitled to 2 days off by law, as enshrined in their union agreements. In the Victorian union agreement for the public service teachers, they are allocated 3 days bereavement leave but are expected to use this before the funeral.
2-3 days to grieve is way too low to support people dealing with bereavement and we believe that we can do better as a community to support those who are grieving. Bereavement could be classified as an emotional injury. The Workplace Relations Act 2005, encourages workers to return to work after an injury, and while this is everyone’s desired outcome, in the case of bereavement, it may be unrealistic considering the current amount of entitled bereavement leave. It may be the case that a little bit more time afforded between the loss of a loved one and returning to work, makes all the difference to success in returning to work.
Grief does not discriminate and neither should an employer. A person should be able to take the time they need to start their grieving process with the knowledge they have a job to come back to.
The case for extending bereavement leave
More recent grief models, point to the grief process as being more of a back and forth process between feeling the pain of the loss, and trying to rebuild ones life anew around this loss. The bereaved continue to flip back and forth between these two orientations. With a natural grief trajectory, this will diminish over time. Two days bereavement leave to focus on feeling this loss, is grossly inadequate.
It is well documented the potential physical, emotional and mental health impact bereavement can have on an employer in the work place. A Northern Island Longitudinal Study found that being bereaved increases your risk of poor mental health, with up to 71% of people more likely to be taking medication for depression. Eyetsemitan (1998) stated that people returning to work earlier than is ideal for a healthy grieving process, due to economic reasons, will likely experience what he coined ‘stifled grief’ in an effort to fit back into the work environment. This off course has long term ‘hidden’ effects on both employer and employee in terms of personal health and company productivity. It has been estimated that the financial cost to organisations due to grief and loss is in the billions. (Eyetsemitan,1998)
For each death, there is an average of 4 to 5 grieving survivors. For most, extreme feelings of grief begin to fade within 6 months after the loss. But some continue to struggle for years to move on with their lives. Some people want to get back into the routine, but others do need to take time away. More support and acknowledgement at the beginning of the bereavement journey may benefit successful return to work life and thus long term financial security. We believe that enshrining bereavement leave in the National Employment Standards would send a message to employees and employers that there needs to be space made for the process.
The studies we found are compelling for the need and value in extending bereavement leave.
‘Loss and Grief in the Work place, what can we learn from the literature’ (O’Connor, Watts, Bloomer & Larkins, 2010)
This paper explains how grief in the work place can effect employee productivity and loss of company profitability. According to American Hospice Foundation (2000), as cited, workplaces that provide programs that address grief and loss “encounter fewer mistakes, reduced sick leave, lower staff turnover and improved teamwork resulting in sustained productivity.”This paper states that the available research points to the inadequacy of 2 days bereavement leave. Apart from the inability to process grief, let alone plan a funeral in 2 days, we live in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society and the need for flexibility due to rituals and ceremonies occurring at different time’s within the first year, is another consideration. While work can be a place of support in getting on with the living of a life after a significant death, many people will return to work due to financial constraints rather than being work ready. It is suggested that negotiating return to work during a time of bereavement could have significant benefits on employer and employee outcomes. This paper also promoted the need for developing more compassionate workplaces with a culture of grief literacy, where people could feel more open and honest in their communication about what they were going through and thus encourage peer support. This highlights the great need to name bereavement leave for what it is.
Grief and Loss in the Workplace (Tehan and Thomson ,2013)
This study states the need for flexible policies to help bereaved employees to assimilate their loss and start to reconstruct how their world may look now their loved one is no longer here. They state that this may help significantly in preventing negative behaviours manifesting within the individual and/or the workplace. These negative behaviours include reduced levels of concentration, poor quality of work, reduced productivity, tensions and irritability that can lead to impaired communication and conflict. Employment can be extremely important for an individual reconstructing their life after the death of a significant loved one, and we are getting better at educating workplaces around how to deal with grief in the workplace. However, we have some way to go. Two days bereavement leave could be seen to send a significant message that its time to “get over it” and “get on with it”. While many employees may access the 10 days Personal leave available to full-time employees, these may also have been used up on personal sick days or with appointments caring for their loved one and/or in the weeks before a protracted death.
Tehan and Thompson (2013) call for “a legislative framework to develop and implement a specific quantity and quality of flexible and responsive workplace bereavement leave could be two options to address grieving employees’ needs when returning to work in the first year after their bereavement”. They go on to suggest the possibility of developing a national self-insurance scheme such as Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1998 scheme already available in Australia.
Both of these studies referred to the stigma individuals felt around bereavement. We believe that naming leave to grieve as Bereavement Leave, goes some way to normalising grief in the workplace. Lets name bereavement for what it is!