We need more compassion in the workplace

Employers need to provide better support for staff who are affected by terminal illness, caring responsibilities and bereavement, says Anita Hayes

Compassion lies at the heart of Hospice UK’s values, as well as the kind-hearted, personalised care provided by its 200 member hospices to terminally ill people and their families.

Hospices take a holistic approach to care, focusing on the person, not just their illness. They provide highly supportive environments, not only for terminally ill and dying people and their families, but also in the way they look after their staff, recognising the emotional pressures they face and supporting their wellbeing and resilience.

There is much the modern workforce can learn from the compassionate ethos of hospices.

While there is more awareness among employers about issues such as mental health, there is a growing number of employees whose needs they often overlook. 

Through our work with people whom hospices support, we have become aware that there is a need for better support in the workplace for people dealing with, or affected by a terminal or life-limiting illness, those who have caring responsibilities or who are experiencing bereavement.

These experiences can create considerable emotional stress and uncertainty for employees, leading to feelings of shock, sadness and confusion. Often, people do not know where to turn to get the support they need and employers are not always equipped to help their staff deal with these experiences.

Almost one in three working age people in the UK have a long-term health condition and over one million say they are supporting, or caring for family members who have a terminal illness. These numbers are set to rise as the demographics of our society change.

Our population is rapidly ageing and the ‘sandwich generation’ is working longer and caring more than ever before.

In response to this need, we at Hospice UK launched a new programme at the CIPD Annual Conference yesterday aimed at helping employers to improve support for staff who are living with a life-limiting or terminal illness, caring for someone with one, or experiencing bereavement.

The programme offers practical guidance and support for employees, line managers and HR teams, helping them to create a more caring workplace so they can support their employees during some of the most difficult times they will ever face.

It includes advice and resources, as well as training workshops on topics such as understanding bereavement and handling difficult conversations.

Maintaining employees’ wellbeing is important at the best of times, but when someone is going through the life experiences targeted by our programme, it is even more important that the right support is in place.

This hinges on good communication, so training managers how to have sensitive conversations and create more openness around the challenges of living and working with these life experiences can be transformative for workplace culture. There is also a strong business case for employers to improve the support they offer their employees.

Research shows that living with a terminal illness or bereavement can have a significant negative impact on businesses, affecting staff morale and meaning that companies risk losing skilled staff.

Nearly half a million people have given up work over the past two years as a result of caring responsibilities, at an estimated cost of £2.9bn to the government.

Enabling employers to improve support will ultimately benefit them, helping to better recruit and retain staff and ensure their employees feel more valued and supported.

Having a terminal illness, caring for a loved one or coping with bereavement will affect most people at some stage in their lives, and companies need to be better prepared to support their staff through these challenging experiences. Adopting a caring approach and supporting someone facing these difficult experiences as a human first and an employee second will reap dividends in the future for companies.

Anita Hayes is head of learning and workforce at Hospice UK. More information about the Compassionate Employers programme is available on the charity's website.