Time to Grieve: Building Equitable Bereavement Guidelines

Most of us have experienced the death of a loved one at some point in our lives. Whether it’s losing a grandparent, the unexpected loss of a friend or a beloved family pet, death touches each of our lives. How we handle death often differs, but there’s one constant: Time is a key part of the healing process.

Death affects each of us differently. Each employee has a different timeline for grieving — and different needs and desires when returning to work. The bereaved have memorial services to attend — and frequently involved with planning when the loss is close. This can require more time than the standard three to seven days an employee is commonly given for bereavement leave. When dealing with this diversity, how can HR put equitable bereavement leave guidelines into place?

“A bereavement policy needs to allow an employee to come to terms with a new normal,” says Mary Faulkner, senior adviser at Inflexion Advisors. “Regardless of the specific relationship and grief needs of the individual, they are dealing with a huge change in their lives, and that needs to be handled with compassion and tact.”

Here are three considerations to help you create equitable bereavement guidelines at your organization.

Plan for Flexibility and Leave Room for Customization

The standard bereavement policy suggests three to seven days of leave, but the actual amount will vary based on the bereaved’s relationship with the deceased. Most bereavement policies differentiate between the loss of a core family member versus peripheral family and friends. Of course, the employee suffers regardless, but “core” losses usually entail memorial service planning and handling the fallout, in addition to the loss being harder to cope with.

In a strict policy, this “core” is usually limited to spouses, parents and children. But we all know that human relationships are far more complicated than simple categories allow.. It’s important to rely on your employees to help identify these core connections. Many people, for example, have been raised by grandparents and may have a closer connection with a grandparent than a parent.

Faulkner suggests examining each case individually to give employees appropriate room for grief. “Instead of having a hard-and-fast policy, approach bereavement as a set of guidelines,” she says. “This leaves room for handling each situation on a case-by-case basis.” Even just changing the language from “policy” to “guidelines” communicates a compassionate flexibility to your employee base, which they will appreciate when the day comes they most need it.

Trust Your Employees to Be Honest About Their Needs

A common error in bereavement response is getting too investigative. Employers sometimes ask for “proof” that a loved one has died, or even that the employee was close to that person. Avoid this kind of investigation. If you don’t trust your employees in this regard, then there are probably other issues at hand and investigating the employee’s claim isn’t going to fix anything.

“A bereaved employee is in a deep stage of grief,” says Angela Nino, founder and CEO of Empathic Workplace. “You should never compound that grief by asking someone to prove that they’re experiencing it.” Misuse of bereavement leave is not a standard problem, and it’s not worth losing your employees’ respect or aggravating their pain over.

When guidelines are in place and your organization has demonstrated a compassionate approach to bereavement, your employees will feel more empowered to — when possible — address the issue ahead of time, Faulkner says. For example, if a loved one has a terminal illness, for example, it’s possible to plan ahead to some degree. Your employees will appreciate being able to approach you without fear of being judged or questioned.

Empower Employees to Make Their Own Decisions

Grief is a tricky emotion, and no two people have the same experience. Consequently, it’s critical to let employees have some control over the pace of their bereavement leave. Some people, for example, may actually gravitate toward work as a coping mechanism or validation of normalcy. Often the gravity or permanence of the loss doesn’t immediately register, especially for a close connection.

It’s possible that an employee may choose to come back to work immediately, but may need time off down the road. “The first days, weeks and major holidays after a significant loss are going to be really difficult,” Nino says. “It’s important to build those considerations into equitable bereavement guidelines.” To personalize bereavement leave practices, consider allocating “grief days” during the first year after a major loss.

Additionally, if your company or insurance policy offers grief counseling, make sure your employees are aware and encourage them to take advantage. Grief is hard to navigate, and it behooves an employer to provide resources to help employees deal with it. Robust mental health is important for any employee, and grief needs to be handled in a healthy way in order for the employee to achieve that.