It’s Time to Rethink Corporate Bereavement Policies

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Valentine’s Day 2017 was one of the most devastating days of my life. Without any warning, without any signs, without any notice, my father passed away.  More than three years later, I recall every detail of my mother’s frantic call to tell me when she couldn’t find my dad.  I remember scrambling to the car with my husband and our then two and four-year-old children, the long drive from New York to Massachusetts, stuck in traffic, my daughter repeatedly vomiting all over me, then walking up the garage stairs into the house very late in the evening, praying that my father would be alive at home waiting for us. He was not.
The days that followed seemed like a nightmare we could not wake up from. While my parents’ finances were fortunately in good order, we had a long list of to-dos: choosing a casket, arranging the cremation, selecting a burial suit for my dad, declining or accepting an autopsy, cancelling dad’s cell phone and his Social Security benefits, transferring bills into my mom’s name, writing an obituary. Then there was the task of telling family and friends, a lifetime’s worth, knowing that with every conversation, we were re-experiencing the trauma of his death.
I had my husband call my manager’s executive assistant to let my company know I would be out. I took the paid time off I needed and felt supported by my bosses and my team. I will never forget the outpouring of support I received from my work community. Unfortunately, I know this is not everyone’s experience.
While many organizations are rushing to rethink parental leave policies, wellness benefits, and extending our world of remote working past this pandemic, bereavement policies probably haven’t been at the top of many lists. Maybe this is because many of us are uncomfortable embracing death, grief, and loss in the workplace.
But this is the right time to consider bereavement leave. How can organizations better help grieving employees? Here are five things to keep in mind:
Give more time off. According to research conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 88% of businesses offer paid bereavement leave. However, these periods typically extend from three days to the more generous five. There are no federal laws requiring employers to provide workers with paid or unpaid time off following the death of a loved one. In fact, Oregon is the only U.S. state that requiring it, thanks to legislation passed in 2014.
Given all the tasks associated with arranging and/or traveling to a funeral, sorting out finances, and mourning one’s loss, a few days off from the demands of our jobs don’t cut it. Organizations need to step up with more paid leave. Facebook set the bar in 2017 when it doubled its bereavement leave to to 20 days paid following the loss of an immediate family member and up to 10 for an extended family member. Not coincidentally, COO Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband in 2015 and wrote a book, Option B, about the experience.
Remember, too, that bereavement, or grief, comes in several stages. So people might want to take time off intermittently as they need it, maybe 10 days now and 10 days later for a belated memorial service or trip, or to celebrate a date important to the person lost.
Expand the definition of family. Many bereavement leave policies distinguish between immediate and extended family members. The best are flexible, covering the loss of any loved one, including a partner, child, parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors.
Miscarriage should also be included. Some companies, like Uber and Reddit, have taken this step. According to the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 29% of women experience PSTD, 24% experience anxiety, and 11% experience moderate to severe depression after a miscarriage. Bereavement leave is an opportunity for organizations to support people through all types of loss.
Don’t ask for proof of death. Do not ask to see a death certificate, obituary or letter from a funeral home or hospital. This is uncomfortable, unnecessary, and assumes ill intent of someone asking for leave. The chances that someone would lie about the death of a loved one to abuse his or her company’s bereavement leave policy are very small. Please don’t use this as a moment to create mistrust and conflict with your employees. Believe employees when they say they are grieving and give them the space and time they need.
Offer grief counseling. Many organizations already provide some type of mental health support to your employees, and this is the time to remind people that it’s available. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are designed to help people through issues that might affect their performance at work and ultimately their well-being, and most EAPs include include some form of assessments and counseling. Some organizations also provide subsidies for grief counselors that employees choose on their own. If your company isn’t offering these benefits, encourage HR to consider it.
Take the individual’s lead. When I came back to work after my dad died, I wanted to throw myself into existing projects and new initiatives. I needed to feel useful and find a new normal for what life after dad would look like. Other people might need less work, a slower pace, or different tasks, even after they’ve returned from leave. Please don’t make decisions for those grieving. If they want to take on more work, give it to them. If they don’t want to take their full bereavement time off, don’t insist that they do. If they want to talk about the loss, listen. If they don’t, respect their wishes. And if they need time to recover, support them.
These are the moments that matter in a workplace. Six months into a pandemic that has killed more than a million people worldwide, organizations must rethink bereavement leave and grief support. How we show up for our employees during the most painful and traumatic periods of their lives  is something they will never forget.

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