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

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam