The business of death

Meg Carter reports on an initiative to get employers to be more involved when their staff are affected by bereavement
How would your work colleagues react if your partner, parent or child died? Acute sympathy - certainly. Concern - definitely. But what about embarrassment, frustration at not knowing the "right" thing to say or do and, dare they admit it: fear? These latter emotions are just as common a response and can exacerbate rather than ease the bereaved's situation. Yet like many of us, few organisations will confront these issues before the need arises.

The effect on the individual is tangible. "One minute you are a work colleague, the next you are labelled 'widow' or 'widower'," says Nigel Dumbrell, head of fundraising and marketing for bereavement charity Cruse Bereavement Care. "Companies underestimate the effect it has on an individual. It's more than feeling sad. It's about a complex mix of emotions - how to carry on living, how to support yourself financially, how to cope with bringing up children, alone."

Mr Dumbrell believes that companies have a social responsibility to their staff and customers to consider how best to deal with the issue of bereavement. "Within society, there are key areas of support at such a time - there's the immediate family, there's friends, the local community and there's work," he says. "At some point, every business will have either employees or clients who have to deal with bereavement."

Office of Population Censuses & Surveys data shows over 640,000 people died in the UK in 1995 (the latest year for which figures are available). An estimated 1.5 million people were directly affected by bereavement that year. According to figures published by Cruse last week, it received more than 106,000 inquiries from the public over this period - up 18.5 per cent on the previous year, and up 25 per cent year on year among people aged 18 or under.

Cruse operates a national network of local trained volunteers, offering a range of support from full counselling to simply listening. The growing number of inquiries is a reflection of people's increased awareness of the benefits of such support, Mr Dumbrell says. Yet it is not an awareness widely shared by employers.

Ignorance and misunderstanding exist even in obvious areas where day- to-day business brings organisations into regular contact with the bereaved - such as social services, funeral directors, and financial services, he claims. "There is still a prevailing attitude that you should buck up your ideas - that life goes on. Or that seeking help is a sign of weakness."

One company bucking this trend is Midland Bank, which has set up a specialist division, Crisis Mentors. Treating death as a taboo can have an adverse effect on business, believes Liz Friedrich, a Crisis Mentors counselling consultant. "Although a growing number of companies are thinking about it, there is still the widespread attitude that if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," she says. "Employers, managers and colleagues - like society as a whole - are not quite sure what to do. But this approach is taking its toll: you just can't go on replacing staff for ever."

Crisis Mentors provides a range of services to Midland Bank staff, for internal use and customer support. Activities span three areas. There are careers mentors dealing with issues like redundancy. There is Open Line - a staff counselling service. And there is Crisis Mentors which responds to trauma: incidents such as bank raids or a member or staff who dies at work. The service is unique, Ms Friedrich believes, as it combines both bereavement and crisis counselling.

Organisations whose daily business is likely to bring them into regular contact with bereaved customers were the first into this area.

London Underground, for example, offers support to drivers when members of the public throw themselves - or slip - in front of their trains.

British Airways offers an in-house provision through its health service division and also runs an incident crisis centre at Heathrow for a number of airlines. This goes into action in the event of a crash and employs trained staff able to deal with families of the missing, injured or dead. PPP healthcare runs a Health Information Line and Stress Counselling Service. Every healthcare customer is allocated a personal adviser trained on a Supportive Skills course.

In an attempt to encourage others to follow suit, Mr Dumbrell is now offering a broad range of businesses staff training in how to address and respond to colleagues' and customers' bereavement. "We are currently working with a major high street retailer," he says. "They have recognised the importance of understanding not only how to deal with staff but also customers - like a bereaved family needing to return Christmas presents."

But progress is slow. "We don't believe this is something we should get involved with - it's not our role and would be regarded by many of our staff as intrusive," according to one telecommunications company personnel manager. "It's not dodging our 'social responsibility'; we are involved in community sponsorship and charitable donations."

This attitude comes as no surprise to Mr Dumbrell. But, he claims, it must be challenged. Cruse currently faces a funding crisis with the Department of Health, which provides the bulk of its funding, due to phase out its grant by 1999. As Cruse provides services free of charge, it is now trying to persuade businesses to contribute funds.

It's an uphill battle, Mr Dumbrell admits. "The trouble is, we have an image problem. Start talking about death and most companies back away: they see no benefit." Many prefer to associate themselves with more PR- friendly charitable concerns, he believes. "But while they may not want to, it won't be long before they have to confront it - head on"n