Why a Compassionate Approach to Bereavement Benefits Both Employee and Company


Losing a loved one or relative is incredibly painful, and often the farthest thing from one’s mind is work. On top of the grief and emotional challenges, there is also the inevitable logistics of paperwork, funeral service arrangements, and wills.

Being able to take time away from work during bereavement is crucial, and it falls on each company to have a bereavement policy to support employees in such difficult times. Indeed, the United States and most countries around the world do not have federal laws that make bereavement leave mandatory. Most states similarly do not have bereavement leave laws. However, most companies—around 94% in the U.S.—have some policies in place.

Here is a look at what bereavement leave entails and why it’s in a company’s best interests to be flexible, generous, and compassionate when employees require time off.

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave is time taken off by an employee after the death of a relative or close friend. Typically, this is paid leave, so the employee does not suffer financially during a stressful time that is ultimately out of their control.

Bereavement leave is usually granted to an employee when an immediate family member passes away: a parent, child, sibling, in-law, spouse, domestic partner, guardian, or grandparent. However, it could also be granted in special circumstances in the event of a death of a friend or other person with whom the employee has a special relationship.

Should a company have a bereavement leave policy?

As mentioned, the vast majority of companies in the United States have some form of a bereavement leave policy. These can be included in employee contracts.

If you own or run a business, or you work in HR, and your company does not have a bereavement leave policy, it can be a good idea to create one. Simply put, a bereavement leave policy gives employees the peace of mind that when tragedy occurs in their lives, they will be supported and offered the time off to grieve and take care of personal obligations.

The length of bereavement leave can vary, but it is commonly between three and five days and is often separate from sick leave or paid holidays.

However, some companies are more generous when it comes to bereavement leave. Facebook, for instance, in 2017 announced that all employees would receive 20 days paid leave in the event of a family member’s death. When accounting for weekend days, this is essentially a full month.

Is three to five days of bereavement leave enough?

Facebook was praised for its more generous approach to bereavement leave, but it brings into question what many experts believe: that the average amount of time off is nowhere near enough.

Lisa Murfield, a long-time HR manager and advocate for longer bereavement leaves following the death of her stepson, wrote the book The ROI of Compassion with her husband. Speaking to Business Insider, she noted, “Most of the organizations I’ve worked for, it’s three days of leave when you lose an immediate family member and one day for an extended family member. And that is pretty common. We are woefully behind in paying attention to bereavement, unfortunately.”

Meanwhile, Terri Daniel, a certified trauma professional and end-of-life educator, said overcoming grief is a process that needs to be approached properly and patiently. In her view, expecting employees to return to work duties so soon after a personal tragedy can have adverse effects.

“Coping is what we do when something is unbearable and we want to make it go away. Yes, grief can feel that way, but it also invites—demands—that we work with it in order to heal,” Daniel wrote in an article.

Studies have shown that forcing people to return to work too quickly can lead to higher costs in lost productivity for companies.

A 2012 study called Grief Index: The “Hidden” Annual Costs of Grief in America’s Workplace that involved 25,000 participants found that 85 percent of managers rated their decision-making as “very poor” to “fair” in the weeks or months following a bereavement. In addition, 90 percent of workers in manual labor jobs reported a much higher rate of physical injuries due to problems with concentration and focus in the weeks and months after a bereavement.

The survey respondents were also asked to estimate the number of lost work days they believed were the direct result of their reduced ability to focus. Some 50 percent put the number around 30 lost days in which their value to their employer was dramatically reduced.

In summary, the study estimated an average yearly cost in lost productivity, lost business, and poor employee performance of more than $75 billion.

Why flexibility is key to bereavement leave

So, what is the answer? It’s clear people need time to process grief, and it is to the company’s benefit to allow more bereavement leave. At the same time, companies will expect their employees to return to work at some reasonable stage.

First, applying some flexibility to the situation always helps and is usually appreciated by employees. For instance, there could be certain religious and cultural considerations that need to be kept in mind that require an employee to take off more time than the official policy states.

Flexibility should also be applied to each individual situation. If it is a particularly distressing bereavement—the death of a child, for example—that would need to be treated differently from other personal tragedies that might be less acute.

Additionally, companies can offer flexibility in terms of when the employee takes their leave. For example, it might be possible to allow employees to use bereavement leave as they choose over the subsequent year after a death, since each person deals with grief in different ways. Some may choose to return straight to work to maintain a sense of normalcy in the initial period after a bereavement, but take time off later.

Other approaches to bereavement leave include offering flexible work hours, allowing employees to work remotely, and adopting a “leave donation” policy whereby other employees can donate vacation days to allow a colleague more time off.

Essentially, having a bereavement leave policy that is based on compassion and understanding, that allows for flexibility, and that offers employees plenty of support will lead to increased company loyalty. But most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.