When was the last time you reviewed your company’s bereavement leave policy?
If your company is invested in providing better mental health resources, updating that essential policy is a great start. Grief is often heavy and can cause a variety of mental health concerns for workers — everything from fatigue to depression and even anxiety attacks.
Sadly, our culture lacks a standard for dealing with workers who experience a painful loss. One of the most challenging aspects of grief is getting back to a normal routine, including work. If an employee is unable to properly grieve and is forced right back into work, it can create an unhealthy mental state.
Consider this a grief-in-the-workplace guide for managers to build a better and stronger bereavement leave policy that supports employees in the best way. You’ll find insights into what grief looks like and wisdom from grief expert Michelle Cramer, author of Unshattered Grief who is also an Advanced Certified Grief Recovery Method Specialist.
Grief in the Workplace: What it Can Look Like
Grief is a universal experience, but it’s personal and looks different when experienced by individuals. Loss can come in many forms and can also severely impact an employee’s life. Knowing the signs — even the most subtle ones — can be a cue to leaders and colleagues a fellow employee is suffering.
Some of the signs may include:
- Lack of energy
- Inability to focus
- Hyper-focused behavior
- A range of emotions, including tears to anger
One important thing to remember when it comes to grief: There is not a “normal” period of time one grieves. It’s deeply personal and also depends on a variety of things including beliefs, age, support network, personality, and more, according to WebMD.
It’s even more important for employers to be compassionate and understanding when it comes to an employee experiencing grief. The more support an employee has, the better off they will be mentally, physically, and beyond.
The Ties of Grief and Mental Health
Losing a loved one can be a traumatic, stressful, and overwhelming experience, to say the least. There’s a reason bereavement literally means "to be deprived by death."
Harvard University reported that grief is often broken down into two categories: acute and persistent. Even acute grief is not wrapped up after a funeral or memorial service. Acute grief can last up to a year. Persistent grief goes beyond a year and can manifest into issues like depression, anxiety, and other health conditions.
Grief has been shown to rewire the brain and even impact health. While psychological, it has the powerful impact of affecting people physically, too. Medical research has linked grief to issues like disrupted sleep, immune system changes, and the risk of blood clots.
Additionally, grief can also cause personality changes including being more irritable and less patient, states the Grief & Loss Center website.
Being aware of this impact can also help employers think carefully and empathetically when it comes to revamping a bereavement policy.
A Grief Expert’s Insights into Supporting Grieving Workers
Michelle Cramer is the CEO and founder of On Angels’ Wings, a nonprofit organization that offers free professional photo and grief support for families who have a medically-fragile child from maternity to 18 years.
As someone who has repeatedly been in the presence of those grieving over the last 15 years, Cramer’s mission is to help others through loss. She also aims to teach others that grief is a normal part of the human experience not to be shunned — especially by employers.
Below, Cramer shares how to address employee needs when it comes to grieving in the workplace:
Let’s talk about grief in the workplace: Why is it so hard to talk about? Why should company leadership be talking about it?
“Grief is so very personal and vulnerable. There is this predisposition to remain disconnected from personal matters in the workplace, especially in relationships between management and employees. Rather than finding a balance to best serve employees, the topic of grief is generally just avoided. Or, there is a lack of true understanding in which management fails the griever, putting on unrealistic expectations for recovery, saying things that end up being quite hurtful, and not giving employees the tools to respond well to their grieving co-workers.
But especially in a post-COVID world, this is a topic we should absolutely be addressing and discussing in the workplace. If the place where a griever spends most of their time is not a safe place in which they can feel supported and work toward healing, then they won't be able to perform adequately at their job.
From a logistical standpoint, it comes down to employee retention in a society that suffered during the Great Resignation, has difficulty finding new employees in the first place, and deals with silent quitting employees. From a personal standpoint, it's simply a matter of compassion.”
In your personal and professional experiences, how have you seen companies fall short when it comes to bereavement policies?
“I have story after story from grieving individuals, but this is one that stands out to me:
"The people I work with directly were amazing, but our company's HR department and leave company were a mess. They have a separate company handle maternity and short-term disability leave. They originally told me I wouldn't get any leave, even though my son was born at 30 weeks (+5 days) only a week before. They finally told me I would get 8 weeks of medical leave, but I wouldn't get the extra 4 weeks of parental leave that all other new parents get. They said it's because that leave is for bonding, but the way it's written means that all new parents get it unless their baby dies. The woman who handled all of it was very inconsiderate, too.
I tried arguing with the woman from HR because it wasn't fair and it wasn't explained on their website (where I had to get all the info. on leave in the first place) that the leave was only for bonding and would be taken away from me, but she just got worse and ended up telling me that grieving isn't the same. I could've talked to my doctors and maybe gotten a separate short-term disability leave for more time off, but it wouldn't have been paid as well as parental leave and I would've had to jump through all the hoops to get it approved. I love the company I work for most of the time, but I'm still hurt by how they treated me at that time.’”
What does the federal law say about having a bereavement leave policy?
“There is a federal requirement that companies offer 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave for pregnant women. But if that woman loses her child unexpectedly during delivery, she's expected to come back to work in a week in most cases. The national average for bereavement leave is 3-5 days (for immediate family only), but there is no federal requirement to provide it.
Currently, the states of Oregon and Maryland have a law regarding bereavement leave, but both still fall short (Oregon, at least, does provide 2 weeks).
Why we've not addressed this on a federal level is beyond me. And why we seclude that leave to immediate family only is also insensitive — some relationships go beyond blood and marital status. I know if something happened to my best friend, I'd be devastated. When my nephew took his own life in 2020 at the age of 16, I was a wreck, but I still worked the day I found out because we were on a deadline at my then job because that was the expectation.”
What are some of the best ways leaders can provide support during times of grief?
“Having a sit-down conversation with the employee upon their return to work to set expectations. This means giving the employee the open opportunity to express, without reprimand, what help they need for the next few weeks to build back into their regular productivity.
Understanding that an employee that has suffered a tremendous loss will not have the capacity to perform at their previous level immediately upon return is paramount. They will be in a fog and it will be uncontrollable. Grief is not something that we can just turn off. And it does not get easier with time. We just learn to build a life around it, and that takes time and support to get there.
There is also a presumption that grief is personal and should remain so. This creates isolation for the grieving employee, which is harmful. That we should grieve alone is a myth, but the workplace is the main environment in which this myth is applied.
It's also important that company leaders learn how to speak appropriately to an employee that is grieving. Societally, we say all the wrong things to a griever: It will get easier with time, there's a reason for everything, your loved one is in a better place, at least you can have more children, it could be worse, I'm sorry for your loss, and more. Those in management should be trained on what things to avoid and what is a better way to approach a grieving employee (avoidance is not the answer!). Likewise, employees should have the same training so that they can be prepared to help their fellow co-workers in such a time.”
Cramer also recently spoke on the Rooted in Revenue podcast on grief in the workplace and the need for HR to support grieving employees. Give it a listen here.
Tips for Delicately Handling Grief in the Workplace
As mentioned before, grief rewires the brain and can have a major impact on health, productivity, and overall well-being. It’s a universal experience that all humans go through at some time or another.
But how should a manager handle it in the workplace?
Dealing with death is never easy, especially when the griever must come back to the “real world” and go about their daily routine. Leaders at companies should have a firm handle and even a solid handbook on grief in the workplace as a guide for managers.
Cramer recalls chatting with a connection about her desire to help companies better support grieving employees. He relayed this story to her that made her realize companies must do better by their employees:
“He told me that a few years ago, he was working at a large company in our shared hometown, putting in 60-hour work weeks including almost every weekend (which was optional, and not paid overtime, but he liked to go above and beyond). Then his father unexpectedly died. The HR policy at his company for a death in the family was three days off, otherwise, he had to use vacation time. He had to take off a week in order to plan and attend the funeral out of state. Just three months after returning to work, he was called into a meeting with managers. They claimed his productivity was low and he would therefore suffer a pay cut, but they could not quantify it when he asked for numbers.
Upon further digging, they admitted it was because he had only worked one weekend in the past three months when he was previously working all of them. While working weekends wasn’t a requirement, since they were not seeing “motivation” from him, his pay would suffer. The fact that he just lost his dad did not matter; that he recognized the importance of time with his own family and didn't want to be away from them on weekends anymore did not matter. After all, they provided three free counseling sessions to their employees in circumstances like his. Surely he was still capable of his previous productivity?”
Considering the story above, think about how you would want to be treated after the death of a close friend, family member, or beloved spouse. Use those same emotions and logic to sculpt your handbook and grief guide for managers and your bereavement policies.
Here are a few ways to do it:
- Revisit your company’s bereavement policy - Cramer notes that there should “be requirements for proving the loss or limitations on how many times a year an employee can utilize the bereavement leave.” She notes that exceptions should also be considered as well because people do experience multiple losses annually at times.
- Consider a reasonable amount of grieving time - Beyond the initial shock of losing a loved one, there’s also planning and attending a funeral. Emotions don’t disappear once the funeral is over. Cramer recommends two weeks off — a week for the funeral and a week to recover. For those dealing with losing a spouse/partner or child, a month off shouldn’t be out of the question. “It seems unprecedented to many companies, but we never get anywhere as a society by ‘doing things the way they've always been done,’” she says.
- Train managerial staff on handling grief - It’s critical to learn how to sit down and have a conversation with an employee who suffered a tremendous loss to determine expectations for that employee as they return to work, says Cramer. Managers need to be able to speak to an employee who is completely vulnerable without causing additional harm with their words.
- Be flexible upon the grieving employee’s return - Managers should be able to discuss where a grieving employee may need help from managers or co-workers in the coming weeks after a loss. Maybe they need a more flexible schedule, with the ability to come in a bit earlier, take a longer lunch, and leave at a different time than usual. Perhaps they need the option to work from home a couple of days a week. Empathetic co-workers can also alleviate some of the work burdens as well during this time.
Grief is a winding path that can take a long time to get through. Even then, most people find grief lessens with time but the pain is still there from the loss. By providing solid bereavement leave policies paired with proper training, employers can help tremendously in an employee’s grieving process.
How does your company handle bereavement leave? Share what’s worked well for your company or what your experience has been with bereavement leave in the comments down below.