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Bereavement policies need to be updated to better support employees affected by MAID

March 14, 2024
By Katherine Breward, University of Winnipeg

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Imagine your elderly parent has just made the decision to use medical assistance in dying (MAID) services. Your parent, who has a terminal diagnosis and is suffering and in pain, made this choice after careful consideration, medical guidance and a heartfelt talk with family.

Your family members, who are spread across Canada, decide to gather a few days before MAID is performed — to visit, share stories, laugh and cry together, and say goodbyes. You want to be by your parent’s side, holding their hand, when the procedure is performed. There are plans for a funeral service two days after the procedure.

You call your employer to alert them that you need five days off due to an imminent death in the family. “I’m sorry,” your employer says. “Our official policy allows only three days of bereavement leave, please let us know which three days you will be absent.”

Which event would you be willing to miss? The goodbyes? The medical procedure itself? The funeral? And how much will it cost you emotionally to make that choice?

This is the situation many Canadians, including an Alberta HVAC technician named Arthur Newman (pseudonym), whom I interviewed for this story as part of ongoing research on the topic, currently find themselves in.

Most workplace bereavement policies were designed prior to MAID and very few employers have adjusted these policies in light of the new reality of living and dying in Canada.

Bereavement policies in Canada

Bereavement policies are inconsistent across Canada. Federal employees are able to take up to 10 days off (not required to be consecutive), while the minimum legal requirements in British Columbia and Alberta are only three days.

In Ontario it is only two days, although employers can voluntarily offer more. Compassionate care leave is available, but that requires going through Employment Insurance and is intended for people acting as a primary caregiver for an extended period, rendering it impractical for short leaves.

In addition, some employers strongly encourage employees to take their bereavement days consecutively, limiting flexibility. This current approach assumes the leave only begins after a death has occurred and is inadequate when a family member is using MAID.

In the era of MAID, death rituals that take place before someone passes away, like living wakes and other traditions, are becoming increasingly common. If a family member wishes to fully participate in all the end-of-life rituals of a loved one, they will need more than two or three days of leave.

Being physically present for the procedure itself is also an important comfort for the person dying and their loved ones, both of whom psychologically benefit from a supportive and serene environment. These new support needs and rituals generally supplement funerals, rather than replace them, which increases the overall time off that is required.

Unintended complications

Aside from death rituals and the MAID process itself, there are additional practical complications that can impact how many days of leave someone requires. For example, in Newman’s case, he travelled from Alberta to Ontario for his father’s MAID services.

After he arrived, his father decided to postpone his death a couple of weeks to address some unexpected legal complications related to his estate. Newman found himself in the impossible position of, having already taken a bereavement leave, being ineligible for another in the same year.

It was not an uncommon dilemma; the nurse practitioner scheduled to perform the service told him short postponements often happened due to things like estate management issues or parents giving their adult children more time to accept their decision.

Current bereavement policies do not address this reality. The outcome of that can be unintentionally cruel if employees are forced to choose between participating in death rituals (postponed or otherwise) or maintaining a positive relationship with their employer.

Some of these issues apply to non-MAID deaths as well. People with terminally ill loved ones who don’t choose MAID also want to be with them at the end, gather with loved ones, and have rituals, but the timing is even more difficult because they don’t have a specific death date.

Supporting grieving employees

Like most people who experience loss, employees who have a loved one going through MAID often require support while they process a wide range of emotions. They experience the usual emotions associated with grieving, including fear, anger, guilt, sadness and uncertainty.

In some cases, however, they also experience moral confusion or outrage if their personal or religious beliefs conflict with the practice of MAID. Family tension, arguing and alienation may emerge if some family members support the decision and others do not, heightening anxiety for everyone.

This creates significant stress. Work-family role conflict, which is conflict experienced when our work roles interfere with our ability to meet family obligations, magnifies the negative impacts of stress. This can lead to emotional exhaustion, difficulties with empathy, the tendency to treat people like objects and diminished performance at work.

All of these outcomes are highly negative in the workplace. As such, it is beneficial for employers to minimize work-family conflict by providing compassionate and caring supports for all bereaved workers, including those whose family members use MAID. That could include an empathetic supervisor, provision of an employee assistance plan with free counselling or referrals to bereavement support groups.

It also includes allowing sufficient time for employees to help their loved ones die with dignity and celebrate the life that was lost — in rituals that occur both before and after MAID services. It is highly recommended that employers adjust bereavement policies to allow more time and flexibility.

The additional cost created is justified on moral and ethical grounds, but also on a direct cost basis. Employees who feel like they are treated fairly, with compassion, consistently perform better than employees who feel their needs are being overlooked or neglected. As such they are better able to do their work and contribute to profitable operations.The Conversation

Katherine Breward, Associate Professor, Business and Administration, University of Winnipeg. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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