Ask the panel

September 22, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am head of a very busy department and I recently lost my wife to cancer. She died within six weeks of diagnosis. I am 55 and completely heartbroken. I find myself constantly bursting into tears and unable to focus on work for long. My university allowed me leave to look after my wife in her last weeks and then some time for the funeral. I really cannot ask for any more time off but fear I cannot hold myself together. I am terrified of losing my job or being demoted. What can I do?

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "I'm very sorry to hear of your situation. There are several possible options you could choose to relieve the strain.

"First, from what you say about your frame of mind, it seems very likely that your doctor would be prepared to sign you off sick for at least a month and then reconsider your condition at the end of that time. That would at least give you a little breathing space.

"I don't know what your financial situation is, but if you have savings and are not happy about the idea of going on sick leave, another option might be to negotiate a much longer period of unpaid leave - a term, for example - with your university.

"There is a third option, which I expect you will have some reservations about but it is worth considering. There seems little doubt, from the symptoms you describe, that you would be diagnosed as suffering from depression. Recent changes to the Disability Discrimination Act mean that depression and stress-related illness might well count as a mental illness covered by the Act. To be covered, your condition must be 'substantial' and 'long term' - that is, lasting or likely to last more than 12 months - and have an effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

One of the activities specifically referred to in the guidance is ability to concentrate. You would need to discuss this with your doctor and find out whether she or he would express a written opinion that your depression is likely to last a year.

"If your managers accept that you are likely to be covered by the Act, they would need to make reasonable adjustments to allow you to continue working.

This might include a period of paid disability leave, a temporary reduction of duties, a temporary change of duties to less stressful ones or a period of reduced hours. Some of these options might be better for you than inactivity. I understand that you might be resistant to labelling your perfectly reasonable grief as a mental illness, but the fact is that the symptoms of your grief are affecting your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, and that is what the Act is there to deal with.

"Your first step is to consult your doctor about all the options. The simplest first move is to take a few weeks' sick leave. I wish you well."

* Our panellist for the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "It is completely understandable that you are finding this time so difficult. Your university will have a bereavement policy that will allow you to have a certain number of days of paid leave, typically a minimum of five in the case of the death of a partner. However, there may also be some discretion to extend this.

"It is also important for you to find out if your university can offer you any other forms of confidential support, so you should contact your human resources department as soon as you can. It may be possible for you to see a counsellor on a confidential basis through the occupational health service, or there may be an employee assistance programme that will also offer support on a confidential basis. Your requests are highly likely to be dealt with sympathetically by the university.

"You must remember that you are trying to cope with a very traumatic period, one that you shouldn't try to get through on your own."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to

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