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  • Writer's pictureBrienne Jennings

Bereavement Policies: Our Staff Deserves Better

I have dusted off my grief soapbox because, quite frankly, it’s been a while and I’d like to stand on it for a moment. Let’s talk about bereavement policies at work.

Bereavement policies usually surround the loss of a family member to death. Although this can be beneficial for folks, these policies may not take into account other losses. Loss is not solely about the death of an individual. Sometimes loss is a divorce or separation from a partner. Loss can be the death of a pet someone has had for over a decade.

Someone may have lost their home. Loss can even include medical diagnoses that are a loss to the person’s health.

Most of the bereavement policies I have had at work have been similar; 3-5 days off for the death of a close family member. What these policies don't take into account is that grieving can, and often does, take longer than 5 days to address. Grief also looks different for different folks. Let’s take a look at some standard policy points:

“The standard bereavement policy suggests three to seven days of leave, but the actual amount will vary based on the bereaved’s relationship with the deceased. Most bereavement policies differentiate between the loss of a core family member versus peripheral family and friends.” (HRCI)

And what messages do we get from these policies?

  • You have 3 days to grieve and then you should be all better.

  • Heal quickly.

  • If they aren’t your spouse, parent, or child, they don’t deserve as much time for grieving.

  • You can address all you need to in 5 days and be ready to work.

As business owners, managers and supervisors, we have to do better.

First of all, when we create policies, we need to make sure that they are as inclusive as possible. This means taking into consideration the needs of our staff. Maybe you have a staff member who was raised by an aunt or uncle and that person has died. Even though that staff member sees their aunt/uncle as their parent, they may not be given the same privileges as what comes with the death of a “core” family member. And what about the loss of a close friend? It can be hard to get any time off to cope with the loss of someone who counts as chosen family Here are some questions to consider when creating bereavement policies:

  • What language am I using? Is “core family” appropriate for my staff needs?

  • Does this allow for meaningful relationships that do not include a contract? (i.e. long-term partners that aren’t married)

  • Does this policy give enough time to take care of arrangements? (i.e, funeral planning, financial updates, etc.)

  • Does this policy take into consideration religious practices? (i.e., Sitting Shiva)

  • Is this policy flexible enough to fit the needs of my staff?

  • Have I created an environment that allows people to come discuss bereavement needs?

  • Does the policy allow for flexibility around shadow losses? (i.e., divorce, loss of home, estrangement)

Second, make sure you know what resources are available for folks who need bereavement support. If we can’t change the bereavement policy, figure out what the staff member can use. Maybe there is a way they can use other leave time to help them. Learn about your company’s employee assistance plan (EAP) and how this might be of assistance to the person who has experienced the loss. If you have a hybrid model, you might consider allowing the person to work from home for a few weeks while they finish up with business related to the loss.

Third, if you can change the policy, include the opinions of your staff. Create a survey offering bereavement options to see what the staff finds the most helpful. During supervision, collect opinions about the policy and see if someone feels under-represented.

And finally (probably the most important one of all) be empathic towards your staff. Empathy is the ability to step into someone else's shoes and try to better understand how they are feeling. Experiencing a loss can be devastating for folks and often is not resolved in the 3 days off they get according to a work policy. Our ability to try and put ourselves in the shoes of others as they experience loss can help us work closely with them to make sure that our employees feel cared for and supported. Empathy breeds connection with others and that connection allows us to be flexible with others' needs.


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