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The case for enhanced bereavement policies

Jason Herring, former VP, People Business Partner at Moody's, says it's a travesty that staff often only get 3-5 days off to deal with a bereavement. He implores CHROs to offer more support:

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Jun 4, 2024

Employer bereavement policies often seem inadequate and antiquated.

Based on my own experience, most employers provide 3-5 days for bereavement.

My beliefs were confirmed in a 2023 study by NFP, an insurance and benefits broker, which concluded that 57% of employers offered just three days’ paid bereavement, while only 18% of employers provided five days.

The typical employer will – it seems –provide just a standard work week (or less), for an employee to grieve the loss of a loved one.

The psychological impact of grief

This tiny amount of time simply isn’t enough.

Though the duration of grief varies widely among individuals, there is some published guidance on the length of the grieving process.

In 2023, an article published on WebMD titled ‘Grieving and the Stages of Grief’ stated that grief symptoms are more intense within the first 6 months of experiencing a loss.

This timeline was substantiated by a study conducted in 2020, which also stated grief indicators only typically begin to decline after six months. However, the website cancer.org suggests the grieving process can take a year or longer.

To recap, using best-case scenarios, the typical employer provides up to five days of bereavement while the grieving process lasts at least six months. Put another way, five days versus 180 days. Something appears to be very unbalanced.

Now, consider you’re faced with one of the following real-life scenarios:

  • The loss of your sibling
  • The loss of your parent (or the person/people that raised you)
  • The loss of your child

In each of these scenarios, the loss is absolutely devastating.

Now consider that you are the executor, and you have a responsibility to handle all end-of-life planning.

You may be responsible for the funeral arrangements, estate planning, legal filings, or other responsibilities.

You may have to relocate one of your surviving parents to live with you or live near you.

Remember, you’re only provided five bereavement days to grieve a devastating loss, not to mention, you may have additional responsibilities while you’re in a grieving state.

Do you really think a maximum of five bereavement days is sufficient in these situations?

Bereavement does not equal vacation

The default response when an employee needs to exceed their allotted 3-5 days of bereavement is for the employee to use their accrued vacation time to cover any time that exceeds their bereavement days.

‘Vacation’ is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “a period spent away from home or business in travel or recreation.”

Vacations are designed for employees to recharge and come back to work refreshed.

Therefore, managing end-of-life arrangements or mourning a deceased loved one should not be equated with taking a vacation.

Thus, providing an enhanced bereavement policy would be a necessary measure to better support employees during such challenging times.

Both ends of the same emotional spectrum

In the US, several states have established their own paid family and medical leave laws to better support birthing mothers during a time meant for celebration, preparation, and adjustment for a significant life event.

According to the Society of Human Resources Management, many organizations are evolving their policies to include or enhance parental leave, encouraging both parents to partake in this joyous, life-changing event.

In stark contrast, the emotional turmoil and sorrow stemming from the death of a loved one is profound, placing it at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.

Both life events, marked by intense emotions, are integral to the human experience.

Despite this, organizations seem to focus on reviewing benefits for childbirth while neglecting the equally important need for enhancing their bereavement leave policies.

Addressing the discrepancy in parental leave policies and bereavement policies could help create a more balanced and empathetic approach to employee leave policies.

There is hope

Some US states have begun to enact laws and legislation around bereavement leave, reflecting a growing awareness of the need for bereavement policies.

This legislative progress provides a beacon of hope for advocates and employees alike, demonstrating a shift toward recognizing the importance of supporting employees through their grief.

Although only a handful of states currently mandate bereavement leave, these changes are significant in setting a path for other states to follow.

Employers, too, are increasingly recognizing the value of enhancing bereavement policies not just as a legal compliance issue, but as a critical component of employee well-being.

Additionally, public resources like Option B highlight the growing recognition that both companies and their employees require more support when navigating the grief associated with loss.

A call for empathetic leadership

To improve employee wellbeing, it’s imperative for companies to prioritize a thorough review of their bereavement policies and align them more closely with the realities of grief and loss.

Companies must move beyond the status quo and champion policies that genuinely provide time and support for employees to heal.

Employees who have faced, or will face, loss will deeply appreciate and benefit from such empathetic policy considerations.

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