< Bereavement at work

Employers’ Guide to Bereavement Policies

A guide to workplace bereavement policies for employers in the United States, with information on supporting bereaved employees in the workplace

What is a workplace bereavement policy?

A workplace bereavement policy is a strategy utilized by organizations to support employees after the death of a loved one. A good bereavement policy includes a period of paid bereavement leave, with the option for extending it with unpaid leave, and support after the employee returns to work.

Why should you have a workplace bereavement policy?

A workplace bereavement policy can help organizations support grieving employees through a very difficult time and cope with grief in the workplace.

Employees who have suffered a death in their family will need time to arrange the funeral, and adapt to life after the loss of their loved one. They will also need time to grieve. Granting these employees bereavement leave, sometimes called compassionate leave or funeral leave, for at least a few days can be very important at this time. Most organizations in the United States include 3-5 days of bereavement leave with pay in their contracts.

A bereavement policy that all managers and employees in the workplace are aware of is good business practice because it:

  • Promotes positive company values
  • Endorses a healthy workplace culture
  • Encourages staff loyalty
  • Improves productivity
  • Reduces unanticipated staff absence

Here is some advice that employers should consider when mapping out a workplace bereavement policy.

What should you do when an employee is bereaved?

  • Express your condolences – and make it clear that they are not expected to work on the day that their loved one has died, nor feel pressured to check in
  • Consider how much time they may need to make funeral arrangements or fulfill religious or cultural rites
  • Explain your workplace bereavement policy clearly and compassionately, ensuring that they understand how much leave they can have
  • Identify how they prefer you to keep in touch
  • Keep dialogue open but unpressured
  • Ask if and how they wish to inform colleagues of their bereavement, and respect their requests
  • Discuss arrangements for returning to work, including options for part-time or flexible hours in the first few weeks or months
  • Discuss how the bereavement should be treated by managers and colleagues in the workplace and respect their requests

What should you include in our workplace bereavement policy?

The specific details of a bereavement policy that an organization can offer depends on its size and culture, but a good one should be compassionate, flexible and clearly explained to employees.

Some organizations adopt a fixed-day policy for paid bereavement leave, while others may scale paid days off according to the relationship the employee had with the person who has died.

It’s widely recommended that a bereavement policy should include at least a few days of paid leave. For many bereaved people the days and weeks after the funeral is a time when they begin to fully register their loss and grief.

If extended paid leave is not feasible within your company’s bereavement policy, grieving employees should be able to choose whether to take additional time from their Paid Time Off (PTO), or unpaid leave. Be open to discussing how reduced hours or more flexible shifts could support them as they cope with their grief in the workplace.

Personal circumstances can vary – an employee grieving the death of their partner may need additional time to care for children, for instance – while someone else might find it difficult to cope with the emotional impact of grief.

It’s good practice to have a bereavement policy in place so all employees are aware of their entitlement to paid and unpaid days off. Be prepared to be flexible, in order to accommodate circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

A good bereavement policy should be structured and clearly explained to everyone, including the bereaved employees colleagues. Assuring bereaved employees that they can have as much leave as they need after a death can cause anxiety if the employee worries that they are taking more time off than their managers and colleagues expected. A flexible, but clearly structured bereavement policy is the best option for both employees and their managers and colleagues.

What impact does grief have on a bereaved employee’s experience at work?

The death of a loved one can impact on almost every aspect of someone’s life and well-being, including their behavior and productivity at work.

Some bereaved people find that work is a helpful distraction from grief. However, grief can cause changes in their behavior or levels of concentration, involvement or focus.

Lack of sleep, loss of appetite, increased anxiety or depression may also be a consequence of their grief. Be open to discussing strategies that may help them avoid additional workplace stress and adjust – from reduced hours, or a shift in responsibilities, to time off for grief counseling, or accommodating specifically requested days.

What should managers and colleagues do when a bereaved employee returns to work?

There are several things that managers and colleagues can do to support a bereaved employee after they return to work. An effective approach to bereavement in the workplace is more than Human Resources policies. Bereaved employees often report that interactions with their supervisors and colleagues is very influential on how they cope with grief in the workplace.

Understanding that grief is non-linear, life-changing and requires a period of healing, is an important starting point for a bereavement policy that you can already have in place for an employee whose loved one has died.

Appreciation for your employees is best demonstrated as an act of kindness in moments that really matter, like the loss of a family member. Acknowledging that someone great is gone, instead of ignoring the uncomfortable aspects of grief, is a valuable way to embed empathy into your workplace culture.

Tamar Lucien, CEO of Mentalhappy

It’s critical for business leaders to make understanding grief part of other trainings that employees get on emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and so on.

Jennifer Moss, Harvard Business Review

Employers can go the extra mile by being willing to provide realistic and flexible work plans and actively promoting a positive, healthy work environment,

William Craig, Forbes

Companies that stand by the people who work for them do the right thing and the smart thing. It helps them serve their mission, live their values, and improve their bottom line by increasing the loyalty and performance of their workforce.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

Consulting a bereavement support organisation or grief counseler can be useful for shaping a grief-aware peer-to-peer culture within your organization.