4 Steps to Improve Your Corporate Bereavement Policy


Dealing with grief in the workplace can be complicated, but it’s doable. Here’s how you can implement a more intentional, progressive bereavement policy in your business.

Not long after the start of the pandemic, grief in the workplace became a central focus for businesses everywhere. One-third of Americans have lost a loved one to COVID. That’s a huge weight of grief to carry — and the weight doesn’t disappear at the office door.

On a human level, if employers don’t put a premium on supporting grieving employees, they will hurt the people who keep their businesses running. They’ll also damage morale, productivity, and their employer reputation. And remember: Just because no one has mentioned that they’re grieving doesn’t mean that there’s no grief — it likely means your employees don’t feel safe bringing their grief to the table.

All that said, creating an inclusive, progressive bereavement policy is hugely important, but it can’t happen without an understanding of traditional bereavement models and their limitations.

Why Traditional Bereavement Policies Fall Short

Grief isn’t linear. Loss is personal, and emotional responses to it are unpredictable. Nevertheless, most corporate bereavement policies follow a timeframe model that assumes there is some sort of established way to grieve. Companies with this framework in place put a bereavement limit — frequently three days — in place, signaling to employees that that is all the time they really get to work through loss. This puts the responsibility on grieving workers to set and meet an artificial expiration date. It makes them feel like they need to pretend that everything is OK when it’s not.

Traditional grief and bereavement policies are also limited by the use of certain language. Consider the term “immediate family.” This means different things to different people. Sometimes a father figure isn’t a biological father, for example, but some bereavement policies only offer support for the loss based on the more “traditional” definition. Beyond that, these policies often don’t include any mention of miscarriages. Studies show that nearly two-thirds of all women who miscarry deal with different forms of grief and trauma, but traditional grief policies don’t acknowledge or accommodate this reality.

Employers aren’t obligated to update their grief policies to better serve employees. In fact, federal law doesn’t mandate corporate bereavement leave at all; Oregon’s the only state that requires it. But just because it isn’t required doesn’t mean it isn’t imperative. Grieving employees can’t bring their full selves to work, which hurts them and your business.

Building a Progressive Grief Policy

For employers looking to implement better bereavement policies, employee assistance programs (EAPs) offer a good starting point. Designed to cover a wide range of topics, EAPs can be useful as part of a bereavement policy. But they only serve as the first step.

When a grieving worker contacts an external or internal EAP resource, the worker is referred to someone who can help them with their specific need. This could be a grief counselor who offers a 30-minute session, for example. This is an opportunity for the employee to open the door to grief support, but it’s not a full solution by any means. When the session ends, the employee will still need support in the workplace beyond that half hour. Also, depending on the EAP, there could be a weekslong wait before being able to access a counselor at all.

If you’re a leader wondering how to support employees who are grieving and how to help managers do the same, know that you have options.

  1. Coach executives and managers on dealing with grieving staff.
    Managers might not have the experience or education necessary to know what to say to or do for a co-worker suffering from a loss. Give them the education they need through training workshops and other initiatives. They might not realize that saying, “He lived a long life,” can sound empty and dismissive rather than soothing. A phrase like “I’m so sorry that you have to go through this” has far more meaning to the listener. Ensuring managers have the necessary knowledge is a big part of ensuring they can support grieving employees well.
  2. Arrange a formal partnership with grief experts.
    Do you offer group or one-on-one grief support to your teams? Find a mental health professional who specializes in grief. Oceana Sawyer, a grief doula, explains, “Given that most employees will only receive three to five days of leave, it’s fairly certain that you are going to be managing someone who is raw emotionally.” As a result, having a professional available can take the weight off of managers’ shoulders and allow them to continuously support employees during difficult times.
  3. Curate a compilation of bereavement resources.
    Your employees might not know where to go for help after a loss. Having managers provide vetted resources can give them direction. Plus, knowing that employees have this information on hand gives supervisors the opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive. Instead of waiting for an employee to ask for help, managers can give them help upfront.
  4. Empower managers to be flexible.
    As much as you might want an employee to “get back to normal,” it won’t happen overnight. Consequently, encourage managers to work with HR when a grieving employee needs a more private workspace or additional paid or unpaid time off. The work doesn’t have to stop, of course, but that doesn’t mean the employee’s workflow has to look exactly the same as it was pre-loss.

Dealing with grief in the workplace can be complicated, but it’s doable — and so important. Taking care of employees is the right thing to do, and implementing a more intentional, thoughtful, progressive bereavement policy is one of the best ways to do it. When you equip managers to provide tangible grief support on top of that, you create an environment where employees who have experienced loss know that their grief is OK to carry and that they aren’t alone in it.

Written by Liz Eddy.

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