HR Leads Business

Aug 14, 2018 | Tim Lemke, HRCI Staff Writer

Time to Grieve: Are a Few Days of Bereavement Leave Enough?

How much time off does your organization offer for workers who have lost a loved one? Have you ever considered whether it’s enough?

Most firms have historically allowed three or four days of bereavement leave for full-time employees — usually enough to allow workers to attend funeral services. But that may be changing as companies and lawmakers are listening to worker concerns about inadequate time off to truly grieve.

Last year, Facebook announced it would expand its bereavement policy to allow for 20 days off following the death of an immediate family member and 10 days for an extended family member. This came after the company’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, returned from work after the death of her husband. MasterCard implemented a similar policy last year.

“I hope more companies will join us and others making similar moves, because America's families deserve support,” Sandberg said at the time.

It’s unclear if companies are moving en masse to expand bereavement leave, but companies in New York may not have a choice. Lawmakers in the state approved a bill requiring employees to allow 12 weeks of bereavement leave for the death of a family member. The bill, which allows for partial pay during the bereavement period, was co-sponsored by two state representatives who lost adult children. It has not yet been signed into law.

“I’ve experienced the pain of losing a child. The grief can be unpredictable and overwhelming,” Republican State Senator Richard Funke says in a statement to the media. “No employee should have to fear losing their job in order to take the time they need to mourn.”


What is the Cost of Grief?

It’s hard to think of bereavement leave in the context of cost to an organization, but any day away from the office can represent a loss in productivity. It’s also worth noting that bereavement leave is usually taken without advance notice, leaving managers and fellow employees with little chance to plan for a worker’s absence. Any expansion of bereavement leave could require staffing adjustments.

“Employers may want to consider carefully examining their attendance policies and staffing practices to ensure they can meet staffing needs when employees utilize the various leave benefits,” writes Kelline Linton, an associate with the Locke Lorde law firm, in response to the legislation in New York.

There’s also a cost to companies if workers return to work before they are emotionally ready.

In 2003, the Grief Recovery Institute issued a study quantifying the cost of grief in the workplace at $75 million. The Institute said a preliminary update off that study suggests the figure is now closer to $100 million.

While three days may allow for time to attend a service, it certainly is not enough time to recover from the emotional pain associated with a loss,” the institute writes on its blog. “The impact of the loss not only takes an emotional toll on an employee but also effects their focus and concentration, which can certainly influence their ability to do their job.”

An employee who feels unprepared to return to work after a loss may feel resentful toward the company and may be operating less productively once they return.

"Expanding bereavement leave policies is a potentially low-cost benefit that can go a long way in supporting employees," writes Julie Stich, Associate Vice President of Content for the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. "The way a person responds to the loss of a close loved one differs from person to person, but such a loss is always devastating. An employer that offers extra time off shows empathy and compassion.”

Other Approaches

Other firms address this concern indirectly by simply providing employees with a sizable about of paid time off (PTO), avoiding designations like “vacation” “sick days” “personal days” or “bereavement leave.” One downside to this approach, however, is that employees may feel as if taking time off to mourn a loved one might reduce their amount of time off for travel, medical appointments or illness.

Another approach is to have policy limiting the number of bereavement days but provide managers flexibility to enforce the policy loosely and sensitively as they see fit.

Moreover, managers should be empowered to let workers ease back gradually into their jobs after suffering a loss.

“Grief in the workplace is a widely overlooked issue and can cause a loss of productivity and workplace disruption for employers,” writes Kristen Cifolleli of the American Society of Employers. “Providing adequate bereavement time off benefits for employees can have a large impact on workplace culture and boosting employee engagement and productivity.”