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America’s bereaved families deserve support, says Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg

Photo by Jolanda Flubacher via Creative Commons

Sheryl Sandberg has called on more U.S. employers to follow the lead of Facebook’s bereavement policy and offer American workers paid time to grieve when a family member dies.

Ms Sandberg, who is Facebook’s chief operating officer, said flexible workplace bereavement policies helped her own recovery when her husband David Goldberg died. Facebook has increased its paid bereavement leave from 10 to 20 days in a move which has made headlines around the world.

Announcing Facebook’s new bereavement policy, she posted: “Amid the nightmare of Dave’s death when my kids needed me more than ever, I was grateful every day to work for a company that provides me with both bereavement leave and flexibility I needed both to start my recovery.”

According to the U.S. Government’s Fair Labor Standards Act, paid bereavement leave is down to the discretion of employers, including time off for a funeral. Currently, around 60 per cent of all workers (and 71 per cent of full-time employees) working in private sector businesses get days off on company time to grieve. These are typically limited to between one and three days.

"No one should face this trade off"

Facebook’s new bereavement policy, which has already come into effect, doubles the paid leave available to its workers mourning the death of an immediate family member.

Revealing that Facebook – which has 15,774 employees in the U.S. and across the world – would also provide paid leave to care for sick relatives, as well as give its workers more time to grieve and recover, Ms Sandberg said: “People should be able both to work and be there for their families. No one should face this trade-off.”

While immediate family members will be given 20 days to mourn a relative, arrange their funeral and begin settling their affairs, Facebook’s new bereavement policy will also offer 10 days for extended family members to grieve. It has also introduced up to six weeks of paid leave for workers caring for sick relatives, as well as paid family sick time providing up to three days to nurse children or other dependents through shorter-term ailments such as flu.

Mom-of-two Ms Sandberg said: “We need public policies that make it easier for people to care for their children and aging parents and for families to mourn and heal after loss. Making it easier for more Americans to be the workers and family members they want to be, will make our economy and country stronger.”

Writing on Next Avenue money and work expert Kerry Hannon approved. She and her siblings juggled caring for their mother and making their father’s funeral arrangements when he died from Alzheimer’s, as well as mourning her beloved parent.

“Now, I believe, it’s time for more employers to take Facebook’s lead,” she wrote. “Working while grieving is a challenge personally and practically. But in many cases, employees have no choice.”

“I hope more companies will join us"

Ms Sandberg’s own journey through grief after husband Dave’s sudden death in 2015, helped shape Facebook’s new bereavement policy. She has also spoken out movingly about the uncertainty with which friends and colleagues handled her loss.

In a frank and touching Facebook post a month after the death of her beloved husband, she wrote: “For me, starting the transition back to work has been a savior, a chance to feel useful and connected. But I quickly discovered that even those connections had changed. Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why – they wanted to help but weren’t sure how.”

Realizing that her colleagues were unsure of the appropriate ways to acknowledge her grief and convey their support, she explained she’d addressed ‘the elephant in the room.’

Opening herself up to being ‘vulnerable’ and telling close colleagues it was okay to ask her honest questions – and say how they felt, she said: “Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing.”

Acknowledging her good fortune in working for a company that provides bereaved workers with the flexibility to grieve their own way, Ms Sandberg clearly believes that every worker in mourning needs time to readjust to the life-changing impact of a loved one’s death.

Psychologist Annie Broadbent, who counsels the bereaved, said that while returning to work can be a welcome distraction, intense grieving can set in later when the initial shock of someone’s death has worn off. A sympathetic employer can help support workers through this – and flexibility is key. “You are far less likely to perform ‘badly’ at work, if you are working in an environment in which you feel understood,” Ms Broadbent said.

“Our workforce is by far our greatest asset,” said Ms Sandberg. “I hope more companies will join us and others making similar moves, because America's families deserve support.”

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