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Workplace Grief

"Work As a Refuge"

A Study from 1988.



Multi-National Corporations

The directors of the Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) for each of the multi-national corporations studied were interviewed about policies relating to bereaved employees. An additional counselor at the transportation company and two other counselors at the energy company were also interviewed. (All full-time counselors at each company were interviewed; the latter two companies had larger departments.)

The interviews done with the multi-national corporations revealed similar policies and procedures for bereaved employees. However, the flexibility of these policies and procedures varied considerably. Each company had a standard procedure of three days off with pay immediately following the death of a family member. If additional time was needed, the decision after consulting with the bereaved employee was made by the supervisor or manager. If a bereaved employee appeared to be dysfunctional because of the grief, a leave of absence of up to six months was often granted, but only if the employee was under the care of a psychologist or psychiatrist.

The corporate atmosphere appeared to play a major role in the flexibility of the stated policies and procedures for the bereaved. For example, the definition of "immediate family" was very flexible in the merchandising company with a reputation for having a high regard for the sense of well-being of it's employees. "Family" in this company included gay lovers who had died of AIDS.

The same was not true for the public services corporation. Time off under any circumstance was discouraged and a gay relationship was not considered family. In the words of the EAP counselor interviewed, "You just are not absent here. If you are absent more than three days just for illness, you walk a fine line."

The attitudes of the individual supervisors or managers were also a factor. A manager not sensitive to the personal well-being of his employees, in a company considered to be humanistic, might not be as sympathetic to the needs of the bereaved employee and vice versa. An EAP counselor of the energy company described experiences with both supervisors and managers who were very rigid, and others who were very flexible.

I've seen some managers and supervisors who said, "Take three months and get your act together. Do whatever you have to do." We do have some supervisors and managers who will stick by that three days and expect the individual to come back and operate at 110%.

Bereaved employees do not have to use EAP services. Employees needing additional time off may instead choose to go through the corporate medical department. The corporation representatives described several ways that a bereaved employee may hear of the services available through the EAP. Services were publicized through company newsletters and brochures as well as enclosures in paychecks. Management training sessions are often given by the EAP to make supervisors and managers aware of the services available for troubled employees. However, since most Employee Assistance Programs were originally formed to help with drug- and alcohol-related problems, many employees still think only in terms of those services being available. This misperception was described as an ongoing problem by the Employee Assistance counselors.

Interestingly, opinions regarding whether grieving employees were receiving adequate support varied greatly, not only with each company, but also in some instances, with counselors from the same company. Two of the EAP counselors at the energy company believed the company as a whole was supportive and flexible as long as the person was regarded as a good employee. The director of the program did not agree. He believed that the company as a whole had become less humanistic after a recent merger with another energy company. In trying to repay the enormous debt incurred by the merger, the company had become less flexible with human problems.

The EAP counselor from the public services company felt that the policies of that company were inadequate in meeting the needs both of the people who were not blood relatives of the deceased, and of AIDS-related bereaved. "There are very strict guidelines in this company and people really are supposed to adhere to them . . . they run a high risk in not doing so."

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