You work for both the National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) and the Dying Matters Coalition. Can you briefly describe the roles these organisations have?

The NCPC is an umbrella organisation, which works on behalf of organisations involved in providing end of life care, so it might be hospices or other end of life care providers. Five years ago, the NCPC was asked to set up a broad coalition to try to change public attitude towards death and bereavement. This led to the Dying Matters Coalition been set up.

Talking about death and bereavement is uncomfortable for many of us, so do you think that part of the problem stems from the fact that stakeholders simply do not like talking about or thinking about bereavement policies?

I think it is complicated, however I definitely think that one of the issues why there is not a compassionate approach in many workplaces toward death and bereavement is that people do not like talking about it. They are not sure how to talk about it. That might mean that there is an inbuilt reluctance on the issue of compassionate polices on the agenda for organisations to think about. I also think that even if an organisation has a good policy, a policy is only as good as how it is implemented. Many employees and managers feel uncomfortable talking about it, they may well want to go the extra mile to offer support to somebody who is been bereaved, they might be scared of saying the wrong thing and a result end up saying nothing, which could be worse than anything.

So I think as a society, we are not very comfortable to talk about dying. Many of us say we are comfortable talking about it, but when it comes to it, we do not like having the conversations that do matter and the evidence is the same in many workplaces. Which is why the report actually says we need better training for managers or better support for employers so they feel more able to say the right thing and less worried about saying the wrong things.

We did a study a couple of years ago, which found that about a third of GPs have never really initiated a conversation with their patients about end of life issues. If doctors feel uncomfortable talking about it, then it is not surprising that many people in the workplace feel uncomfortable discussing it.

Surely the nature of the relationship to the deceased has to be taken into account? For example, the loss of a partner or child would of course invoke the highest level of support. Whereas the loss of a grandparent may trigger a lower level of support, are there guidelines in this area?

It is not as simple as saying if it is a more distant relative then an employee would not need the same level of support or compassion because actually that person might have been a major part of their life. They might have lived with them or cared for them. So what I am saying is that a policy should make sense and needs a more compassionate and sensitive approach. We understand that many employers and managers are able to do that. However, our survey definitely shows that it is not happening as widely as it should be.

You have launched a new initiative called ´Compassionate Employers´. What does that entail and has there been much interest from companies to get involved?

It is something we have newly launched and we have had ad hoc requests from employers big and small that want some advice. We have worked with some organisations to get information for example on their intranet so that managers are able to access some top tips on compassionate employment. We want to go further really because it is part of our work to try and change public attitude so people feel more comfortable to talk about drying. This research does seem to indicate that there is a particular need in some workplaces. We are hoping to publicise it as much as possible, but it is still very much early days.

You also deal with people suffering from terminal illnesses?

That is right, although this report focussed more on bereavement and to have a compassionate employment policy, it is not just about bereavement, it is also about providing support to people who are carers and people who have had a terminal diagnosis to ensure they get the support they need and ultimately in the best interest of the employer and for everything to be managed in a far more systemic way.

Are there any companies out there at the moment that are shining examples of how to get it right?

Our research does not specifically focus on employers, but rather the general public perceptions on experiences they’ve had from their employers. It seems like there are some fantastic employers, just like there are others that have a long way to go. There are also mixed picture cases of organisations with very compassionate managers and others who are not. This seems to suggest that firms should have a more consistent approach to training and induct their managers on how to manage bereavement.

Can the government get involved by providing legislation?

Bereavement is an issue that deserves far more attention that what it had in the past. For this reason, my organisation has called for a government review which takes several issues into account: among these, statutory bereavement leaves and flexible working provisions for people who have been bereaved.

It would be interesting to gather different organisations and peoples views to try and work out what the consensus is. Dealing with bereavement cannot be reduced to giving people some paid time off, but also adopting a flexible approach which helps managing each individual case. In our experience, employers have much to benefit in being more compassionate.

Going beyond the role of the government, however, there is no excuse for employers to check whether they have got bereavement policies and whether their managers and staff are aware of them. This is something that does not need to wait for a government review.

What role can HR departments play in the whole process?

As custodians of HR policies, I would expect a professional HR department to be absolutely confident that their organisation has a compassionate bereavement policy in place which is correctly implemented, and that their employees and managers can clearly understand.

What can individuals do to support themselves?

Individuals should be aware of what bereavement policies, if any, their organisations have, and which level of support and flexibility they can expect when back at work. There is also a range of bereavement charities which provide information for employees on their websites and offer support and guidance. It should be also added that, however, bereavement is a highly subjective matter and that different people can react differently.

Do we all need to face up to our own mortality and that of our loved ones?

I believe we should, without having to wake up in the morning and thinking about dying in bed. Some time ago our society, due to higher mortality rate, was more aware of death and would talk about it more openly; whereas nowadays death often tends to be denied and avoided. We hence need to talk more about bereavement. People who have been bereaved should not be isolated and should be given adequate support from their workplaces, family, and friends.

Interview by Sergio Russo and Odira Ndulue