Talking About Death With Your Employees

By Rita Pyrillis

May. 11, 2016

At Workforce, we’ve covered many tough topics that are often viewed as taboo in the workplace such as mental illness, addiction and Alzheimer’s disease.

Discussions about these issues are difficult to have in any setting, but conversations at work about deeply personal struggles are fraught with concerns about privacy, legality, job security and other issues. There’s only so much that we want our employers to know about our lives and only so much that employers really want to know.

But some things must be openly addressed to create a supportive workplace where employees can do their best during tough times knowing that others care. One of those things is a topic that most of us want to avoid, even though none of us can — dying.

Those of us who have watched a loved one die know the blanket of pain and grief that covers us, making it hard to move through the day. Imagine carrying that heaviness to work where business goes on as usual.

Recently, I watched my cousin shuttle between her job, the hospital where her mother was admitted after a fall and, ultimately, to hospice. Her employer seemed supportive, but she had only so many paid days off at her disposal so she lived in an exhausting loop of home, work and hospice until her mother died weeks later.

I also watched a good friend juggle a demanding job and the care of her elderly parents — both in the hospital — while at the same time managing their financial and legal affairs.

While both my cousin and friend are talented and hard-working, I’m sure that they struggled to stay focused and present on the job. I don’t know what kind of support their workplaces offered, but it’s becoming clear that employers need to think more about how to help workers through the dying process, whether through programs like end-of-life planning or caregiver or survivor support services.

An aging workforce, medical advances that extend life and the growing ranks of caregivers means that more employees will be face to face with mortality, either their own or that of a loved one. Employers must be prepared to deal with this reality.

Struggling with end-of-life issues is a heavy emotional and often a financial burden for workers who are overwhelmed with grief, anger, fear and a host of other emotions that make it difficult to function. And that has a direct effect on productivity, performance, absenteeism and the cost of employee benefits.

According to Dr. J. Brent Pawlecki, chief health officer at Goodyear Rubber & Tire Co., employers are not doing enough to help their workers through these tough times.

“By making it a priority, employers can address the end of life as a specific workforce management challenge and work to understand the full impact on their employees,” he wrote in a 2010 article published in the journal Health Affairs.

He advised employers to develop tools to facilitate discussions around end-of-life issues, offering help in completing advanced directives and resources to assist with funeral arrangements and estate settlement issues. He also suggests offering a plan with a carrier that covers end-of-life counseling.

Many of these things are starting to happen.

In 2014, Goodyear partnered with The Conversation Project to distribute 2,400 toolkits to guide employees in having end-of-life discussions. The organization was co-founded by journalist Ellen Goodman and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement to facilitate discussions around dying. The National Business Group on Health also offers similar support to employers. Pitney Bowes and General Electric are other companies that offer support services in this area.

This year, Medicare began paying doctors to have end-of-life discussions with their patients, and a growing number of insurers like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts are offering end-of-life benefits to encourage patients and providers to talk about death and to increase services that can help the dying live out their remaining days with dignity.

Thankfully, the “death panel” hysteria that erupted during debates over the Affordable Care Act years ago is behind us and a more thoughtful approach to the difficult business of dying is underway.

It’s in the best interests of employers to help usher it along.

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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