By Katie Lynch
Workplace well-being and employer benefit packages have been expanded and highlighted in recent months in light of current events and as companies look to attract talent and build loyalty within their organizations. While vacation time, remote and flexible working, paid parental leave and other wellness perks are often touted as part of a progressive company culture, bereavement leave and grief support still remain a gaping hole in the employee value proposition, leaving people scared to share or ask for help during difficult life events at work.
Even in the wake of Covid-19, I find the conversation around grief and loss in the workplace lacking. Few companies have truly publicly acknowledged the devastating loss of this past year and its impact on employees. As of this writing, the death rate from Covid-19 in the U.S. has surpassed 580,000 Americans, leaving an estimated5.2 million Americans grieving (according to a recent calculation that for every person lost to Covid-19, nine close family members are left to grieve). It is undeniable that this pandemic has affected each one of us, so suffice it to say that all Americans have experienced grief and loss this past year. Why then are companies not talking about its impact on their employees and offering more support?
Companies that strive for empathetic and inclusive cultures need to acknowledge these issues and remove the stigma associated with grief and death in the workplace. According to the Society of Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2019 survey, 89% of employers were providing some form of bereavement leave to their employees. However, traditional bereavement leave lasts just one to four days, depending on the employee’s relationship to the deceased. Not only are some companies still not providing leave, but those that do provide it often fail to provide an adequate amount of time away and lack ongoing support for employees dealing with a grief event. When a company only provides employees with one day off following the loss of a loved one, it signals a lack of empathy and support from leadership.
Something that may be contributing to the lack of discussion about grief in the workplace is the lack of any federal or state legislation requiring companies to provide paid leave to their employees. Currently, there is no federal requirement to provide paid leave even for a funeral, let alone time to grieve one’s loss. The fact that the U.S. Department of Labor calls this “funeral leave” and not even bereavement leave shows how antiquated our view of bereavement remains. In an encouraging turn of events, President Biden recently announced the American Families Plan, which would immediately guarantee three days of paid bereavement leave if passed. As of today, though, Oregon is the only state to sanction the overarching need to support grieving employees with a law requiring bereavement leave for employees, with California hoping to follow suit as legislators consider a similar bill.
While some companies are investing in programs to help employees in need, there is room for further support. Having spent years working with people through challenging life transitions, I know firsthand that dealing with grief and loss is not just a single moment in time, and it almost always requires ongoing guidance, education and specialized support.
In 2017, two years after the tragic death of her husband, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg famously placed the company at the forefront of the bereavement discussion by championing the need for expanded bereavement leave policies for employees and recognizing that employers need to support their people throughout these situations. Yet, little has changed outside of a select few companies, including Facebook and SurveyMonkey, both supplying bereavement leave of 20 days for immediate family members and 10 days for extended family members. Mastercard, Zillow and New York Life Insurance Company have all in recent years adopted bereavement leave policies of 10 to 20 paid days, depending on who passed away.
While there were great hopes that 2020 would usher in a new era of discussing grief and loss in the workplace and providing employees with adequate leave and support, either internally or with the help of a third party, many companies have failed to take this crucial step. What is so shocking is that even before Covid-19 wreaked havoc on our world, it was reported that grief costs employers an estimated $75 billion each year in lost productivity alone. This number has most certainly skyrocketed in the past 14 months. What we are experiencing now is not new, but it has been worsened. If the risks and costs to businesses are so severe, why do companies not invest more heavily in supporting these employees?
We need to use the momentum from Covid-19 to do better for our employees. With this mission helping to drive my company and me, we are having these difficult conversations with clients and are providing their employees with proper support in this area. We are hopeful that moving forward, more companies will recognize their responsibility to promote conversations in the workplace on dealing with grief and loss as well as training managers and employees on how to support colleagues following a grief event.
Companies that want to lead with empathy and be at the forefront of this movement will need to model their programs after progressive examples and invest in programs offering robust and ongoing support to employees following a loss. They will also need to create policies that are more inclusive, ensuring that bereavement leave is not just given for the death of a parent, spouse or child, but any family member to whom the person was close. This should also include miscarriage. In addition to leave, companies should also provide employees with ongoing and more robust emotional, administrative and logistical support.
Lastly, the topics of death and grief must become part of the conversation in the office, and managers and leaders need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. The results will be seen in both better business outcomes and profits as well as a happier and healthier workforce overall.
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