Tuesday 25 October 2016

Death and bereavement not just a family issue when it comes to our civil servants

Mary Louise O'Donnell

Published 04/12/2015 | 02:30

Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell
Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell

There are almost 30,000 civil servants in Ireland today. They represent a cross section of Irish society. They are the wheels of government. A silent people who do their best to ensure the workings of State.

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Civil servants are quiet and low-profile, partly because of the rules that govern the way they talk to the public. It is very rare that they get to speak outside the remit of their departmental structure and work, and they don't get a chance to interact with the public in an emotional way.

They get a negative press. We hear about "permanent, secure jobs", increments, and the scrutiny of the structure. But we rarely hear about how the individual human being interacts inside and outside that structure. We forget they have the same problems as everyone else.

This is why the report I have written, 'Finite Lives - Part 1 of a report on how the Civil Service deals with dying, death and bereavement among its own members', is unique. It invited civil servants to talk and share their thoughts and to do so anonymously around their working lives across such a realistic theme.

I had never thought of dying, death and bereavement politically. It was, for me, a family issue.

However, throughout my time as a senator, I have learned from great educators and leaders in this field that end of life and bereavement extend to non-health and into areas of public policy, financial, legal, social, cultural, educational and administrative. I believe it must be at the centre of all Government policy. It is the one life event that Government can plan for, as it is the common ground on which we all stand.

I attended the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children hearings into end of life issues in 2013 which brought together an electrifying and eclectic group of people to discuss end-of-life care. It was the beginning of a political education for me, as contributors spoke about the philosophical, psychological, cultural and educational aspects of dying, death and bereavement.

Because of what I learned at the committee hearings, I brought a Private Member's Motion to the Seanad in April 2014 calling on the Government to consider a national strategy on end-of-life care and bereavement encompassing all areas of public policy and practice in all departments. This resulted in the Taoiseach asking me to embark on a twofold process.

First, to establish details of the internal procedures relating to dying, death and bereavement as they affect civil service staff. How they deal with the in-service death of a colleague, bereaved colleagues, issues of serious illness, and people facing loss and challenge in their lives.

The second phase, which will be complete early in the New Year, is to identify best practice and to suggest areas for improvement in how the State deals with issues relating to end of life, particularly in respect of providing clear information around available services and supports.

All of the respondents and interviewees were working in HR departments across 16 Government departments and five agencies of State. They were the voices of their colleagues and they spoke objectively, passionately and anonymously.

It is only when I began the semi-structured interviews that the real depth and complexity around the issues of dealing with dying, death and bereavement within the workplace came about - and the full dynamic and colour of the lives of civil servants as individuals began to unfold.

They spoke movingly about the very challenging financial and personal issues they faced. I learned of great vulnerability and anxiety amongst them due to debt, reduced health benefits and lack of financial certainty, with no foreseeable promotional prospects.

I met them after eight years of austerity and depleted organisations which included pay cuts, loss of promotion, loss of morale and loss of personal expectation. There was also a loss of pride in being a public servant. Some said they were even afraid to admit being in the public service because they were perceived as "privileged and cosseted".

I also learned through the research that the average age of civil service staff is 46 so they are facing the reality of an ageing profile and many are at a stage in their lives where they are experiencing parental deaths, for example, and issues impacting on health and mood at work.

The report is not just about civil servants but is really about the fragility of our finite lives.

I believe dying, death and bereavement cannot be the exclusive remit of the palliative care services and be neatly packaged and handed over to the Department of Health.

It is the responsibility of all of us - mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; grandparents; brothers and sisters; employers and employees; law-makers and law enforcers; public servants and private citizens; teachers and pupils; colleagues and friends.

This responsibility is also by extension the State's.

This report is about civil servants' very personal lives, their emotive lives and their affective lives. Their working lives. Their finite lives.

Indeed, all our finite lives.

Senator Marie Louise O'Donnell is an Independent member of Seanad Éireann appointed by An Taoiseach in May 2011

Irish Independent

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