Rethinking Bereavement Leave: It's Time for Humanity in HR

We know you’re here for realness on the hard topics. So, let’s talk about something that’s often brushed under the corporate rug: bereavement leave.

We recently came across a post that left us floored. Picture this: someone loses a family member and their company's response? "Sure, take a day off. Oh, and while you're at it, send us a death certificate as proof." That's not just inhumane; it's a symptom of a deeply flawed system.

For context, this strict policy was a single day off for any family member - grandma, spouse, child. The person’s family member died the night before, they were out of PTO, and they didn’t officially submit for bereavement the next business day because they were busy making arrangements. A question was posed to a group of HR professionals: should we hound the person to fill out forms or wait until Monday?

Like, EXCUSE US??? You can’t be serious.

But in so many companies, they are 100% serious. Quite frankly, we’re over it. And you should be, too. Let’s dig in.

The Hard Truth About Bereavement Policies

This isn't just one bad apple kind of story. It's a widespread issue. We've got companies with policies straight out of a Dickens novel, treating grief like it’s a minor inconvenience. We’ve created a culture where someone missing an arm would dismiss it as “but a scratch” (Monty Python, anyone?). A culture where employees make Tiktoks and memes joking about how Europeans will put up a 3-month out-of-office message while ours would say, “I’m having a life-saving liver transplant, but if you need me, just text, lol.” And we’re only half kidding.

But here’s the kicker: grief doesn’t clock out after 24 hours. And asking for proof? That’s adding insult to injury.

It’s also one thing to point fingers in a blog post and another to back it up with numbers. So, here you go.

According to a 2017 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, only 60% of U.S. employees have access to paid bereavement leave. A more recent study in 2023 found only 24% of “private sector workers had access to employer-provided leave at all.” We spotted some data saying that 60% increased to 88%, but there’s no singular source of truth, and all of these studies carefully say “some sort of leave.” Among those who do offer, the average leave is just three days for immediate family members. For non-immediate family? Often, there's nothing. Zilch. It's like saying, "Sorry your cousin passed away, but we’ll need those TPS reports by Friday."

Then there’s the global perspective. Did you know that in Taiwan, employees are entitled to up to eight days of bereavement leave? Or that in the UK, there’s no statutory bereavement leave, but companies are expected to offer reasonable time off? 

The point is there's a world of difference in how we handle grief in the workplace, and a lot of it doesn't paint a pretty picture.

One of the most unsettling parts of this whole situation is the lack of empathy some policies display. We've got HR departments requiring proof of death as if attending a funeral isn’t stressful enough. And let's not even get started on the lack of support for grieving employees who return to work. It's like being thrown back into the deep end without a life jacket.

The bottom line? Bereavement policies in many companies are outdated, inadequate, and lack a fundamental understanding of human grief. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach in a situation that desperately needs personalization and compassion. It's not just about giving time off; it's about recognizing the profound impact of loss and the time it takes to heal. This isn't just an HR issue; it's a human issue, and it's time we started treating it as such.

Why Some HR Policies Miss the Mark

Diving deeper into why these archaic bereavement policies still cling on in some companies, we hit a couple of roadblocks. The first one's risk management, or in simpler terms, the fear of policy abuse. Some companies are so worried that an employee might take an extra day off under false pretenses, that they end up crafting policies that feel more like they're for a high-security prison than a place of work. 

But let's pause and think about this: if you're genuinely worried that your employees are so disengaged they’d fake a family death for a day off, then you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands – it’s a glaring red flag about your company culture and employee engagement.

Take a good, hard look in the mirror, Doug. Have you created a place where people would rather lie about someone dying than come to work? (Insert side eye here)

Then there's this antiquated notion of keeping work and personal life in separate boxes. This idea might have flown in the era of 9-to-5 jobs with clear boundaries, but we’re not living in that world anymore (we talk about that here, in case you’re interested). We’ve got technology that keeps us connected 24/7, and the lines between personal and professional life are more blurred than ever. Expecting someone to leave their emotions at the door when they clock in is not just unrealistic; it's inhuman. We're not robots programmed to switch off our feelings. When something as monumental as the loss of a loved one happens, it spills over. It affects concentration, productivity, and overall mental health.

This outdated approach also ignores the diverse nature of family structures and cultural differences in grieving. In some cultures, bereavement involves extended periods of mourning, rituals, and family gatherings. Policies that don't acknowledge these practices can be culturally insensitive, alienating, and sometimes plain disrespectful.

And let's not overlook the psychological aspect. Grief is a complex process. It doesn’t adhere to a set timeline. The five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are not linear. Someone might be fine one day and a complete wreck the next. A rigid, time-constrained bereavement policy fails to acknowledge this non-linear nature of grief, forcing employees into a mold they're not ready to fit.

The hard truth is that many of these policies are remnants of a bygone corporate era, where efficiency and productivity were valued over employee well-being and mental health. But as our understanding of the importance of mental health in the workplace grows, so too should our policies evolve. It’s not just about being a good employer; it’s about being a humane one.

For what it’s worth, Ari Simon offers a really wonderful skill-building, culture-setting, consultative service called Grief at Work. Check it out here.

The Impact of Insensitive Policies

When we strip it down, the ramifications of insensitive bereavement policies hit harder and deeper than many realize. It’s not just a case of bad optics for a company; it’s about the profound and often lasting impact on employees who are navigating one of life's most challenging storms, often without a lighthouse to guide them through the night.

First up, let’s talk about mental health. The grief of losing a loved one is a massive emotional burden. When employees are rushed back to work without adequate time to process this loss, it's not just their emotional well-being that takes a hit. We’re looking at heightened risks of anxiety, depression, and even burnout. The mind and body are interconnected, and when the mind is in turmoil, it can manifest in physical health problems, too – from sleep disturbances to weakened immune responses. Essentially, by not allowing proper time for grief, companies might inadvertently be compromising their employees’ overall health.

Then there’s the productivity angle. It might seem counterintuitive to some hard-nosed business types (insert more side-eye here), but pushing employees to return to work too soon after a loss can actually backfire in terms of productivity. Grief-stricken employees are more likely to be distracted, less engaged, and less productive. Their minds are not fully in the game – and how could they be? Imagine trying to focus on a spreadsheet when your heart is broken (for some of us, it’s hard enough on a good day). It's like asking someone with a broken leg to run a marathon.

The impact on team dynamics and morale is another aspect often overlooked. When coworkers see how a grieving colleague is treated, it sets a tone for the entire workplace. It can breed resentment, decrease morale, and erode trust in the organization. Employees start wondering, “If that happened to me, would I be treated the same way?” This kind of environment is toxic; it doesn’t just affect the grieving employee but can seep into the entire organizational culture.

Also, let's consider the long-term relationship between the employee and the company. Insensitive bereavement policies can lead to increased employee turnover. People are more likely to leave a workplace where they feel undervalued and unsupported, especially during their most vulnerable moments. In an era where job mobility is higher than ever and talented employees have more choices, companies can’t afford to be seen as uncaring.

(Check out this real story from a woman whose husband died and her work gave her five days. Her account sheds light on how it impacted her perception of her employer.) 

In short, insensitive bereavement policies are more than just an HR faux pas; they're a critical failure in supporting employee well-being. They affect mental health, productivity, workplace morale, and employee retention. It's high time that companies start recognizing the importance of compassionate and comprehensive bereavement support – not just for the sake of their employees but for the health of the entire organization.

What Does a Good Bereavement Policy Look Like?

A solid bereavement policy is more than just time off. It's about providing meaningful support. We also want to note the following is the bare minimum:

  1. Adequate Time Off: We need to start by giving people enough time to grieve. The standard three-day policy? That’s a start, but it’s not enough. We’re seeing more companies stepping up, offering anywhere from one to two weeks off. Some are even providing additional unpaid leave options.
  2. Flexibility: Grief doesn't follow a schedule. Some days are better than others. A good policy allows for flexibility. Maybe it's part-time work for a bit or the option to work from home. Sometimes showering is hard enough. Maybe they just need the space to roll out of bed and log onto a computer without worrying about drying their hair and commuting to a sad cubicle for 9 hours. It's about understanding that everyone’s grief journey is unique.
  3. No Proof Required: Asking for a death certificate is just...ugh. Let’s treat our employees with trust and respect. We’re all adults here.
  4. Support Beyond Time Off: It’s not just about the days away from work; it's about what happens when you return. Grief counseling, mental health support, check-ins from HR (not to talk about policy but to have real conversations about how someone is doing) – these can make a world of difference.

The Data Backs It Up

When we start crunching the numbers, the impact of grief in the workplace becomes startlingly clear. The Grief Recovery Institute’s study sheds light on a staggering figure: in 2017, about $75 billion lost annually in workplace productivity due to unresolved grief. And in 2023? Well, that number is up to $225.8 billion. That's a 'B' for billion and a 201% increase. If that doesn’t say it all, we don’t know what does.

To be clear, it's not just a tiny dent in the corporate wallet; this is a full-blown economic blowout.

But let’s dissect this a bit. This loss in productivity isn't just about people taking days off. It's about what happens when they return to work while still grieving. The term often used is 'presenteeism' – being at work physically but not fully functioning due to emotional distress. Just a warm body staring blankly at a computer screen, missing deadlines, or making errors they wouldn't normally make. It’s like trying to run machinery that’s not been properly oiled – it's inefficient and potentially damaging to the organization and the grieving individual.

We also want to point out that this financial figure doesn’t capture the whole picture. The toll of inadequate bereavement support extends beyond productivity. We mentioned earlier the potential increase in healthcare costs, both mental and physical, associated with unresolved grief. And let's not forget turnover costs. Employees who feel undervalued or unsupported during a critical life event are more likely to seek employment elsewhere, adding recruitment and training costs to the company’s plate. Truthfully, it can be hard to calculate all of that accurately.

But here’s the flip side: companies that get it right, that offer compassionate and comprehensive bereavement support, tend to score high on employee loyalty and long-term commitment. A study published in the 'Harvard Business Review' suggests that empathetic companies outperform their more callous counterparts significantly. Employees who feel supported in their grief are more likely to have a stronger, more positive long-term relationship with their employer. They’re more engaged, more committed, and often become strong advocates for their company.

There's also a broader societal impact worth considering. Companies that handle bereavement well set a precedent, influencing broader cultural norms around grief and work. They contribute to a more compassionate society where the emotional well-being of individuals is valued and respected.

In essence, the data tells a compelling story: companies can't afford to ignore the impact of grief on their workforce. It’s a costly oversight in terms of dollars and sense. But more importantly, it’s a crucial factor in building a humane, empathetic, and ultimately more successful workplace culture.

How HR Can Lead the Charge for Change

If you're in HR and reading this, you’re in a prime position to advocate for better policies. Start the conversation. Bring the data. Show the human side of things.

The first step? Kickstarting the conversation. This isn’t about bringing up a new policy at the next meeting; it’s about initiating a broader dialogue on how the company views and handles grief.

Bringing the data to the table is crucial. Arm yourself with studies, statistics, and any relevant research to make a compelling case. But remember, numbers tell only part of the story. Pair these stats with real human stories – maybe anonymous feedback from employees who've been through it or case studies from other companies that have implemented compassionate bereavement policies. Cocoon has a lot of great data on compassionate leave! These narratives can strike a chord and make the issue more relatable, more real.

It’s also about reframing the way we view bereavement leave. It’s not a 'perk' or an 'extra benefit'. It’s a fundamental aspect of employee support, as vital as health insurance or paid time off. This shift in perspective can be a game-changer. It’s about recognizing that supporting employees through life's toughest moments isn't just good ethics; it's good business.

Then there's the aspect of policy design. Advocate for policies that reflect the diversity and complexity of grief. This includes flexible time off, support for mental health, and an acknowledgment of different cultural practices around mourning. It’s about creating a policy that’s as multifaceted as the employees it’s designed to support.

Remember, change in corporate culture, especially something as ingrained as bereavement policies, can be a massive undertaking that takes time and steady pressure. It’s about planting seeds, nurturing them, and sometimes pushing against resistance. It may not happen overnight, but with persistence and a solid argument, change is possible.

And finally, don’t go it alone. Build a coalition. Find allies among senior management, team leaders, and even employees themselves. The more voices that echo the need for change, the harder it becomes to ignore.

HR professionals like you are uniquely positioned to not just advocate for better bereavement policies but to lead the charge in transforming how companies support their employees in times of grief. That’s why you’re here, right? Because you care. And you know you have a responsibility and an opportunity to effect real, positive change in the workplace.

A Call for More Human HR Policies

Let's face it: bereavement leave policies need a serious overhaul. It’s time for companies to step up, show some empathy, and offer real support. We spend a good chunk of our lives at work. The least a company can do is be there for us when we’re facing life’s hardest moments.

Remember, we're not just cogs in a machine. We're people. And it’s high time our policies reflected that.

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