How outdated laws deprive grieving workers time to heal

Canada's labour laws fail to see the true impact of grief in the workplace, one study argues

How outdated laws deprive grieving workers time to heal

The Canada Labour Code provides workers mourning the death of a loved one a maximum of five days of bereavement leave. But as one university researcher points out, the provision dating back to 1967 fails to recognize the lasting impact of grief on an individual – and this needs to change.

“The law is not based on any evidence of how impactful grief is; deeply grieving people often aren’t ready to come back to work that soon,” said Donna Wilson, a nursing professor at the University of Alberta, who examined how grief influences people’s work and workplace behaviour.

The death of a spouse, child, parent or close friend can cause people to experience “monumental grief” – the kind that lasts anywhere from two years to an entire lifetime.

Employers and colleagues shouldn’t expect grieving workers to “just brush that grief off and go back to work and be perfectly OK,” Wilson told the university’s news site Folio.

‘Grief brain’
Being forced to return while one is still in a state of mourning can also pose hazards at work.

“If a pilot, a bus driver or a surgeon are still actively grieving, they’re sleep-deprived, distracted, not eating well; they can make mistakes at work or on their way to work,” Wilson said.

This condition – “grief brain” as the professor calls it – prevents a person from functioning the way they did before the loss of their loved one, and it can last for months or years.

Read more: How to support a grief-stricken employee

Now, with the added threat of COVID-19, employers will need to be even more watchful of how their workers’ grief could intensify in the wake of the crisis.

“People tend to grieve harder with a sudden death, like with COVID-19,” Wilson said. “The pandemic has also disrupted the customary things we do before and after death that comfort and heal us, like visiting them in hospital, giving someone a hug or attending a funeral.”

“Even working from home doesn’t necessarily make it easier to do the job when you are grieving, as you are even more isolated with your grief,” she explained.

“People can’t drop into your house for a visit or give you a hug. We still have to recognize that grief is a big deal, and it’s going to affect people and their ability to work.”

Read more: Ontario expands mental health support amid COVID-19 crisis

Based on her findings, Wilson is thus calling for Canadian workers to be given ample time to heal: five days or more, especially if the employee does shift work and needs at least a week to regain their composure.

The Labour Code also needs to cover grief over the death of loved ones who may not necessarily be classified as “immediate family” but who shared close ties with the bereaved, Wilson said.

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