5 Ways Businesses Can Help Grieving Employees Cope With Death

Establishing a bereavement policy and educating managers can help

woman grieving at work
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The death of a close loved one is inevitable, and most people will experience this loss at some point during their working careers. This article offers five ways businesses of any size can better help employees cope with the death of a loved one, including suggestions on how to improve a business bereavement- or funeral-leave policy, and how companies can help managers or supervisors sensitively respond to the needs of grieving employees.

Establish a Bereavement-Leave Policy

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 87% of private-industry companies (those with 500+ employees) offer paid funeral leave to their employees, while only 46% of businesses employing 99 or fewer workers offer this benefit. While these data vary greatly depending upon how you break them down—full time vs. part time (71% vs. 28%, respectively) or geographically (a high of 65% in the Northeast versus a low of 49% in the West)—only 60% of all private-industry workers in the United States receive paid funeral leave on average, according to the BLS.

Conceding that paid bereavement leave represents a genuine financial cost to any American business, the reality is that implementing a formal bereavement policy, regardless of company size, still makes sound financial sense. Since the dawn of time, "death" has a 100% batting average, and employees at companies large and small will probably experience the loss of a close loved one during their careers.

As of 2008, the "cost of grief" in the workplace due to absenteeism, worker errors and overall low productivity amounted to more than $1 billion each year in the United States.

Therefore, the first step many businesses can take is to simply establish a formal bereavement-leave policy for employees. While bereavement leave is usually a separate benefit, the policy should at least specify that employees can use vacation time, paid time off (PTO), sick leave or even take unpaid leave, if necessary, if the company cannot afford to offer paid funeral leave.

Denying the effects of grief by expecting "business as usual" from a worker coping with the loss of a spouse, child or parent merely invites financial loss due to lower productivity.

Moreover, the lack of company bereavement leave can often trigger feelings of resentment and low morale because the employee thinks his or her employer fails to provide understanding or support during this difficult time. In these situations, it is not uncommon for bereaved employees to start looking for a new job or to quit outright—both of which can create an additional, genuine financial impact on the business.

Re-Examine and Redefine Relationships

Too often, businesses that offer funeral or bereavement leave to their employees limit the type of qualifying loss to members of the "immediate family." At a minimum, this usually includes the employee's spouse, son or daughter and his or her parents. (Incidentally, this is how the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act defines "immediate family.)

In some cases, state governments or businesses have expanded the definition of "immediate family" to include: grandparents; siblings; relations through marriage, step-relations or domestic partners.

Unfortunately, even companies that already offer paid bereavement leave to their employees might define qualifying family relationships too narrowly and fail to reflect the changing nature of families these days. For instance, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 4.9 million children lived in households headed by a grandparent, and roughly 20% of these kids (964,579) relied entirely on their grandparent(s) to provide their basic needs.

In addition, some other non-parent relative—such as a brother or sister, cousin, or an aunt or uncle—actively raised an additional 1.9 million children nationwide. According to this same census, approximately 593,324 U.S. households consisted of same-sex couples, of which 43,933 of these homes included children.

The point is that the definition of "immediate family" often falls outside of traditional concepts these days. Therefore, many businesses can help their grieving employees by re-examining their existing funeral-leave policies to broaden the scope of which relationships qualify. Under many existing company policies, for example, employees holding non-traditional parental roles wouldn't qualify for bereavement leave if a child in their care, or a domestic partner, died.

Educate Supervisors

Death makes people feel uncomfortable, and the truth is that even those closest to us still fail to provide the sensitivity and support we need when grieving by resorting to death-denying euphemisms or offering meaningless sympathy clichés and placating bromides. In an office or workplace environment, the perceived lack of sensitivity and support when grieving can intensify because of the additional challenges and dynamics created by professional relationships, particularly between an employee and his or her supervisor.

Typically, employees will immediately contact their manager to let him or her know about the loss (which is one of numerous tasks you should perform after a death occurs). Unfortunately, many work supervisors will not know the company bereavement-leave policy offhand and therefore might rely on their faulty memory, personal opinion of what qualifies as "immediate family" or, worse, insensitively address funeral leave based on a strict interpretation of what the existing policy seems to authorize.

To lessen or eliminate these situations, businesses should conduct regular training for managers that includes educating them about how to sensitively handle a death in the family involving someone they supervise (particularly for new supervisors). Foremost, this training should stress the company's overall desire to provide support to every valued, bereaved employee during this difficult time; that the manager should not act as the HR police; and that, when in doubt because of the circumstances, he or she should either consult with human-resources personnel or refer the employee to HR for further clarification and guidance.

In addition, businesses can help employees better cope with a death by training managers and supervisors about what to look for after the funeral, interment or bereavement leave ends. Unfortunately, the usual three to five days most companies provide for bereavement leave generally proves wholly inadequate when a death occurs because many people only begin dealing with their grief once the details, decisions and distractions of the actual service, burial or cremation have ended.

Teaching managers about the grief signs and symptoms to look for—such as tardiness in a usually punctual staff member; complaints of poor sleep or exhaustion; a lack of patience or absent-mindedness; increased errors or low work performance; anger or irritability; and other signals—could indicate symptoms of grief they might otherwise overlook once an employee returns to work.

Finally, and while it might seem invasive, companies should also consider temporarily reviewing a grieving employee's social-media account(s), if available. Often, people who have experienced the death of someone close will withdraw from those around them and act as if everything is fine but might post something on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or their other accounts that betrays how they're really coping with the loss of their loved one. In this specific circumstance, compassionate employers might better assess the extent to which the death impacts the individual in order to better support their valued employee.

Provide Flexible Enforcement

In today's highly litigious society, the most effective company HR policies usually allow room for "interpretation" because it is practically impossible to write a policy that foresees every possible contingency that might occur in the workplace. As noted above, for instance, even well-meaning managers and supervisors attempting to implement their company's funeral-leave policy according to the written "letter of the law" could potentially fall victim to their unfamiliarity, lack of understanding or personal interpretation/bias.

Therefore, in addition to broadening the definition of "immediate family," businesses should include language in their funeral-leave policies that specifically offers employees the option of discussing their needs with supervisors or HR for compelling or unusual circumstances. For instance, if a funeral or interment service requires travel to another state or to another country, the typical three-day leave might prove logistically inadequate, particularly if the employee also needs to arrange the funeral or memorial service. Or, as noted above, the deceased might not fall under the company's stated definition of "immediate family" but the relationship would prove compelling nevertheless.

In addition, if the employee needs to serve as executor of the estate or has already used up his or her paid vacation, the ability to at least discuss the situation generally proves better for morale than a flat denial.

While sample bereavement-leave policies exist online, The Hartford Financial Services Group "Bereavement Leave Policy" embodies many of the suggestions offered here, including flexibility in applying the policy and a broad definition of "immediate family" members. If your company seeks to create or modify its bereavement-leave policy, you might consider reviewing this information.

Demonstrate Company Support

Unfortunately, grief does not end the moment a funeral, memorial or interment service concludes. As noted above, many people only begin dealing with their grief once the details, decisions and distractions of the actual service, burial or cremation have ended, which can affect their performance or productivity once they return to work.

Thus, businesses can more effectively help their employees cope with the death of a close loved one by demonstrating support during and after this difficult time. For example, with the approval of an employee beforehand, companies should consider informing every member of his or her department, and possibly everyone working for the business, that a coworker has experienced a significant loss due to death. Again, with the employee's consent, this notification might include a link to the deceased's obituary or service details.

In addition, businesses should offer employees the option to attend the funeral, memorial or interment service if it occurs during work hours (and clearly let workers know if this time out of the office will be paid or unpaid). If the service will occur during non-work hours, such as on a weekend, companies should still encourage the employee's coworkers to attend as a show of sympathy, solidarity and support.

Moreover, the business should at least send a funeral or sympathy flower arrangement on behalf of the company to convey its condolences. Hopefully, those within the bereaved's department will also send flowers. While some people consider funeral flowers an unnecessary or wasted expense—and even include the phrase "In lieu of flowers..." in obituaries and death notices—most people will take comfort in any gesture of love and support that survivors make and generally do not want to intentionally limit any expression a well-wisher might want to make.

After the employee returns to work, companies can further support a grieving worker in several ways. This might include his or her manager following up with an employee in the days, weeks or months after the death to gently inquire how he or she is doing and if the firm can help in some way. Communicating to the bereaved if the company's medical insurance provides support services for those grieving a death, or suggesting, if appropriate, local or national grief-support groups that an employee can access for additional help during this difficult period.


"Table 32. Leave benefits: Access, private industry workers, National Compensation Survey," March 2014. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved May 25, 2016. 

"Workers' bereavement benefits often fall short" by Eve Tahmincioglu, May 25, 2008. NBC News

"The Family and Medical Leave Act." U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved May 25, 2016. 

"More Grandparents Raising Grandkids" by Amy Goyer, December 20, 2010. AARP. Retrieved May 31, 2016. 

"Same-sex Couple Households," September 2011. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved May 31, 2016. 

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