BLOG: Dying Matters Awareness Week 8 – 14 May 2023

Personal grief when you work in health and care

How we can become more compassionate around terminal illness, dying and grief in the workplace is the focus for this year’s national Dying Matters Awareness Week (8-14 May).

The devastating and often prolonged effect of losing a loved one will have been experienced by more than half of all employees during the past five years but offering the right support – in the place where many of us spend so much of our lives – is something many managers feel unconfident about, according to Hospice UK.

People often assume that those working in health and care are better equipped to cope with loss because they encounter it on a regular basis. In reality, whether you’re in a caring or support role at a hospice like St Luke’s, in a hospital or nursing home, or working as a funeral director, celebrant or spiritual leader, it doesn’t make it any easier to cope when terminal illness or bereavement comes calling in your personal life.

In fact, these extraordinary environments can present many situations that resonate deeply and make it harder for people to carry out aspects of their work, particularly in the early days of the grieving process.

Many of us will be very familiar with practical measures and advice for self-care that can be useful following bereavement, even regularly advising and supporting the loved ones and carers of people who die in our community. But, when we’re enveloped in the fog of our own heartache, it’s not so easy to listen to ourselves and recognise our own needs.

It’s comforting to know that there is always someone you can reach out to you if you are facing personal loss. In these specialist sectors of our communities we are often fortunate to be surrounded by professional, empathetic people who know exactly what to say to grieving friends and colleagues. They won’t shy away from asking how you are, listening to your worries or having difficult or painful conversations.

Sharing your feelings with colleagues is a good starting point but, depending on your organisation, your first port of call for formal support and understanding will usually be your line manager.

When you’ve lost a loved one, the last thing you need is to be under pressure to carry on working as normal. Compassionate workplaces and managers will give you permission to take time out to reflect, talk, and tap into things that can help you slowly accept your situation and begin to heal.

No two people’s grieving is the same. Each of us deals with our loss in an individual way and a good employer will be as supportive and adaptable as possible, taking into account the special circumstances we are faced with in our jobs and the need to keep services running.

Crossovers with cases you deal with professionally may inflame your personal distress. Maybe you have lost an elderly parent with the same degenerative disease as one of your patients or there’s a young person under your care who is the same age as a personal friend who has died. These are the kind of trigger points that can be avoided by accepting that someone else may need to step in to take over particular tasks for a while.

Many health and care organisations will have robust in-house policies for good practice when managing bereavement, including arranging compassionate leave and smoothing the way for your return to work when you’re ready.

Line managers can be prepared to handle personal bereavement within their teams by becoming familiar with their organisation’s bereavement and compassionate leave policies.

If you are a health care professional, you may already have established relationships with your local hospice and, like St Luke’s, they will probably be more than happy to offer you or your teams advice on how to cope with personal grief when death and bereavement are part of your job.

  • Common feelings after bereavement are anger, shock, numbness, sadness, fear, guilt and anxiety. You may also experience physical symptoms like difficulty sleeping and eating.
  • It’s OK to take time to process what has happened and look after yourself. Rest, try to sleep and eat well, get outside in the natural world and reach out for support from family, friends and colleagues.
  • It may be very difficult dealing with other people’s grief and distress while you are grieving yourself and a period of compassionate leave could be beneficial.
  • Try to retreat to a quiet place for reflection to punctuate your working day – perhaps a hospital chapel, a library or outdoors in nature.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about the person you’ve lost and find comfort in rituals, a funeral and personal remembrances.
  • If you are worried how you are feeling, speak to your GP and consider external counselling. Services, like those provided 24 hours a day by Simplyhealth, can be invaluable – grief can often be at its darkest and most painful in the early hours when no one else is around. You may not think you need this straight away but grief can sometimes feel more difficult after the initial period of shock and realisation.

For more information on death, dying and grief in the workplace visit Hospice UK’s Dying Matters Awareness Week