Getting time off to grieve

In light of the tragic Germanwings crash last week, we take a look at an article Mary wrote about a situation in  2005 where a pilot froze during a flight due to a recent bereavement, and the need for companies to adopt better bereavement policies. 

Getting time off to grieve

26th January 2006

The recent emergence of details concerning a Ryanair pilot freezing on a flight from Duesseldorf to Rome raises serious issues. It occurred last September and involved a pilot whose young son had died two days earlier. According to media reports, Ryanair’s internal inquiry into the incident refers to the crew’s “almost complete loss of situational awareness, both lateral and vertical”. The Ryanair report adds that “the first officer repeatedly prompted the captain to ensure he was not suffering some form of partial incapacitation, and when he realised that the aircraft was now in a potentially unsafe situation, he urged the aircraft to perform a go-around, pulled back on the control column and advanced the thrust levers, but he did not assume control from the captain.” The aircraft landed safely.

So far, the Ryanair report is the only one to be produced on the incident. As Flight International reported, chief executive Michael O’Leary admitted when the matter became public earlier this month that the airline had “screwed up” by not sending a copy of this final report to either the Irish Aviation Authority or the Air Accident Investigation Unit. The Italian authorities have also complained that this has delayed their ability to investigate the incident.

All of these various enquiries now under way must of necessity focus on the policy and practice surrounding the consequences of bereavement. This is likely to draw welcome and overdue attention to an issue in the workplace which to date has been largely ignored. Ryanair have said that they do grant compassionate leave to those bereaved, but have changed their policy in response to the September incident on the Rome flight. They have now made it mandatory for all pilots to report a bereavement in the family. Ryanair have said the pilot had not informed them of his loss. While it is to be hoped that the independent inquiries into the Rome flight incident will extend to examine the issue of these issues, it must be said that awareness of the impact of bereavement and grief on the workplace remains highly limited in Ireland.

Very little research on the area exists for this country, according the Irish Hospice Foundation, which is now beginning to focus on the issue. The Irish Management Institute do not run any training on it and have never been asked to. The employers’ organisations say that they have no specific policy around the issue, but talk best practice allowing for time off and flexibility. Ibec, for instance, do believe that it is in an area worthy of greater attention. “IT’s fair to say it’s a relatively new area,” Brendan McGinty, its director of industrial relations and human resources told me, “and the incident in Ryanair certainly raises the profile of the impact of bereavement in the workplace, both in terms of safety and also generally, and that has to be a healthy thing for us all.” While there is no legal entitlement in this country to compassionate leave, many companies do provide this, often laying down fixed rules such as three days for a parent, spouse or child, one day for a grandparent or sibling, and so forth.

Many confine their involvement to this, considering it sufficient for dealing with the trauma of their employees.

Roughly 29,000 people die in Ireland each year. The Hospice Foundation estimates that each death affects on average 10 other people, many of whom are currently in employment. It can point to numerous examples of where an overly legalistic approach towards a bereaved employee has soured relations throughout a company. It is convinced that much misery caused by insensitive treatment is silently endured, much as bullying was in the past. Generally, it’s a lack of awareness, according to the foundation, which is currently running a series of training seminars on bereavement in the workplace. “Very few organisations are actually bad-minded on the issue,” says Breffni McGuinness, the foundation’s training officer. “There’s a myth out there that if an employer is compassionate, he or she will be taken advantage of, and this hinders a better response from managers. Actually, the opposite is the case. There’s American research to show that there’s a significant pay-off for companies in terms of staff morale and commitment if they create a culture which is open and flexible and allows people what they need when someone close to them dies.” While there are clearly enormous public safety issues involved for companies such as Ryanair in their approach towards employees under stress, the incident on the Rome flight should on a more general level provide an impetus for the treatment in the workplace of those bereaved to become an important matter of public policy and debate.

This column has been republished by the MRJF with the kind permission of The Irish Times.