Employers should allow staff to take more compassionate leave, and spread it out over time, to allow them to grieve after the loss of a loved one, a leading psychiatrist has urged.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Judith Mohring said bereavement leave should be longer, and taken in chunks over a period of around 18 months following a death, “as people's grief expresses itself in different ways at different times”.
Dr Mohring, who is based at the Priory’s walk-in centre in Fenchurch Street, in the City of London, said a “significant number” of patients cited bereavement as the trigger to problems coping at work and home, which could sometimes lead to destructive behaviours like alcohol or drug addiction.
She said that while the length of paid bereavement leave had to be left to individual employers, it was typically too short a period.
Dr Mohring said: “In general we expect grief to be short lived and focused around the funeral, but grief can take months to be expressed and worked through.
“Grief is a form of psychological ‘work’. It requires effort and is an active process of remembering and feeling. For many of us the death of a parent is the first time we have to go through this process and we have no guide to show us the way.”
One senior London professional, who took six days paid compassionate leave after the death of his father, said: “The trouble is that you tend to bottle up your emotions when you are arranging the funeral and keeping your family together, but it is a month or so afterwards when your emotions bubble up and that is when you need an understanding boss and systems to support you, and some kind of techniques you can use to help you deal with feelings of loss.”
Dr Mohring said this case was typical.
“Often people take only a few days off work and then ‘pull themselves together’ and get back into the office.
“Months later they realise all is not well. Sometimes people drink more to cope with their feelings. Work can be a comfort blanket because the structure and familiarity of a job protects us from the fact that we have lost someone significant. But when work performance drops because of low mood or poor concentration, that’s when problems really multiply.”
Currently, workers have a right to "reasonable" time off after an "emergency involving a dependant". Often this is used to arrange or attend funerals.
But the length and pay status of the time off depends on the employee's contract and discretion of the employer. Typically, bereavement leave is about three to five days.
Grieving workers then have to eat into their holiday allocation or get signed off sick.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has argued for a statutory minimum of paid bereavement leave, plus the opportunity to take more if necessary, because those who lose a loved one should not be worried about their earnings as well as taking care of their families.
But the Government has argued that while time for maternity or paternity leave can be predicted, bereavement leave is dependent on the context and individual – and this cannot be legislated for. It says suitable periods of leave should be agreed between employers and employees.
A national study of bereavement published earlier this year suggested that it takes more than two years on average for those who have lost someone close to recover, with women taking longer than men.
The study was conducted among 2,000 people who had lost a loved one by Sue Ryder, the charity that provides social care for those at the end of life.
The Priory has opened a network of high-street centres across the UK - including in London, Birmingham and Canterbury, Kent - for people in work suffering stress and anxiety and addictions.
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