How to Support Employees through Grief and Loss

More companies are recognizing the importance of giving employees the time and space they need to navigate personal loss.

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe Aug 22, 2017

​Charles Read used to think that employees should leave their personal problems at home. For years, the president and CEO of Get Payroll in Lewisville, Texas—a payroll company with 17 employees—offered workers three days of bereavement leave and believed that gave them enough time to regroup and return ready to work. 

But when Read’s 29-year-old daughter, Shelley, died from ovarian cancer in 1992, his perspective changed. Days turned to weeks and then months, and all Read could do was putter around the office for a few hours before giving up and going home. It took at least six months before he could focus again.

Two years ago, Read also lost his wife and business partner, and again he struggled to concentrate. “I understand now that this type of grief is not something that you get over in a day or week, or just ignore or keep at home,” he says.

​Now, when an employee’s family member is sick or dies, Read encourages the worker to take as much time as he or she needs. “We don’t charge it against their time off,” he says. “If they run out of PTO [paid time off], we just pay them anyway. I’m not going to add to their stress. I’m not going to penalize them for things they can’t control.”

Neither is Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who also experienced the devastating impact of personal loss. In 2015, her husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly while on a family vacation in Mexico. Sandberg recently wrote about her journey with grief—and how it informed her thinking about dealing with loss in the workplace—in Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (Knopf, 2017), which she co-wrote with Wharton professor Adam Grant.

“Grief is a demanding companion,” Sandberg writes. “In those early days and weeks and months, it was always there, not just below the surface but on the surface.”

 60% of private-sector workers get paid time off.

 Grief-related losses cost U.S. companies as much as $75 billion annually.

Yet the vast majority of employers provide only two to four days of bereavement leave, depending on whether the deceased is a child, spouse, parent or extended family member. On average, four days are allotted for the death of a spouse or child, according to the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Paid Leave in the Workplace Survey. Three days are typically given for the loss of a parent, grandparent, domestic partner, sibling, grandchild or foster child. Only one or two days are usually offered for the death of a spouse’s relative or an extended family member (aunt, uncle, cousin). And, for the death of a close friend or colleague, most companies don’t extend any leave at all.

[SHRM Members' Only Resource: Leave Policy—Bereavement Leave for Immediate Family and Others.]

Giving Time

​“After the death of a loved one, only 60 percent of private  sector workers get paid time off—and usually just a few days,” Sandberg writes in Option B. “When they return to work, grief can interfere with their job performance.” The economic stress that follows bereavement is like a one-two punch, she writes, for both the employee and their organization. “In the United States alone, grief-related losses in productivity may cost companies as much as $75 billion annually.”

Paradoxically, offering employees more time to deal with their grief—through longer bereavement leave, reduced hours and flexible schedules—could wind up costing organizations less, Sandberg says. By addressing the issue directly, organizational leaders can build in mechanisms for ensuring that the work gets done while also providing employees with the time and compassion they need to heal. And that brings with it long-term benefits in the form of greater employee loyalty.

Many times, the employer thinks about rewarding employees for an anniversary or acknowledging their birthday, says David Kessler, a grief specialist and co-author, with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, of On Grief and Grieving (Scribner, 2005). But how you address the deaths of beloved family members is so much more important. “This is one of the most crucial experiences you will interact with your employees on,” Kessler says. “They will remember how you handled this. This is a moment that will be important in retention.”

​Earlier this year, Sandberg announced that Facebook would begin offering up to 20 days of bereavement leave in the event of a family member’s death. Mastercard recently followed suit, announcing in June that it was increasing its bereavement leave. According to Michael Fraccaro, Mastercard’s chief HR officer, employees of the financial services corporation now receive 20 days for the loss of a spouse, domestic partner, child or stepchild; 10 days for the loss of a parent, sibling, grandparent or grandchild (including in-laws and step relationships); and five days for an extended family member’s death. 

 Grief experts recommend 20 days of bereavement leave for close family members.

 4 days is the average bereavement leave allotted for the death of a spouse or child.

 3 days is the average time off given for the loss of a parent, grandparent, domestic partner, sibling, grandchild or foster child.

For employees who have close familial bonds, it can be helpful when bereavement leave is available for the deaths of relatives outside the immediate family. You can’t put a value on people’s feelings toward one another based solely on their relationship on the family tree, says Alyssa Jeffers, who until recently was a senior community manager at a startup company in New York City. Jeffers lost her 23-year-old cousin unexpectedly on Dec. 21, 2016. When Jeffers returned to work after Christmas, her boss didn’t understand why she was still struggling to deal with her grief. “Some people are closer to their cousins than their siblings,” she says. 

Regardless of whether it’s a parent, spouse, child, cousin or close friend who dies, returning to work only three to four days after the loss can be difficult. Most people are so involved in planning the services and calling family and friends that they don’t have the time they need to process their feelings, says Carol Mortarotti Mason, a grief recovery coach. “All of a sudden you’re back at work, and you’re still in a state of shock,” she says.

What to Say to a Grieving Employee ... 

Often, when a co-worker returns to work after the death of a loved one, we don’t know what to say—so we don’t say anything. But staying silent can make the grieving co-worker feel isolated. Here are four ways to show your colleague you care, according to David Kessler, founder of Grief.com, and Adam Grant, co-author of Option B

Show empathy. “I’m glad you are back, and we’re here for you.” 

“We can’t change what happened, but if there is anything we can do to make your life easier, know that we are all here for you.”

Acknowledge that grief is ongoing. “How are you today?” is better than “How are you?” Grant says, because it allows people to answer honestly beyond just responding, “I’m fine.”

​Show up with a specific offer. But make it clear that it’s OK if the person wants to decline. 

“I’m in the lobby if you want to talk. I will be here for the next hour whether you come down or not.”

Take your cues from the griever. “I’d love to hear more about your loved one whenever that might be convenient for you. I want to respect your privacy.” 

… And What Not to Say

While well-intended, these phrases focus on trying to make the loss go away, Kessler says, rather than acknowledging its magnitude. 

Here are five phrases to avoid when talking with a colleague who has just lost a loved one:

​“You’re going to be fine.”  
​“You’re still young, so you can still have another child, get married again, etc.”    

​“He/She is in a better place.” 

​“Everything happens for a reason.”  

​“Time heals everything.”

Giving Financial Support

​Mastercard’s updated policy is a direct result of CEO Ajay Banga speaking with Sandberg about her book, Fraccaro says. “Although bereavement leave is not one of the things you automatically think about when you are deciding whether to join a company, it is one aspect of the employee value proposition,” he says.

Facebook and Mastercard have set a high standard, and many smaller companies may not be in a position to dole out a month’s worth of paid leave—for any reason. Fortunately, there are creative ways HR professionals can support employees when they need it most. For instance, if a worker needs more time off following the death of a loved one, consider asking other staff members to donate vacation time. 

That’s the approach used by Joyce Van Curen, HR director at Turning Point Community Programs, a nonprofit mental health agency in Sacramento, Calif., with 620 employees. Typically, donations pour in and the grieving individual winds up with more leave than he or she needs, Van Curen says. If the grief is profound, Van Curen will encourage the employee to get a note from his or her doctor saying additional time off is needed, so that she can put the employee on family medical leave.

​U.S. Bank—a company that offers personal, small business and commercial banking services—uses a more formal Employee Assistance Fund (EAF) to help workers with expenses related to funerals and other hardships, including payment of medical bills or housing costs after financial setbacks; temporary-shelter expenses for victims of domestic abuse; and even food, clothing and utility bills. 

Since 2008, U.S. Bank has provided $8 million in grants to 2,000 employees, says Justin Windschitl, senior vice president and director of total compensation at the company, which has 73,000 workers. Most grants for funeral expenses and travel have been in the $4,000 to $5,000 range, he says.

The EAF is funded by employee contributions, but the company matches up to $500,000. The idea for the fund came from employees who wanted to find a way to help co-workers who were going through a difficult time. 

Employees seeking financial assistance apply for the funds, and a third party reviews the applications and decides whether to award the money. The amount of money U.S. Bank is able to award has continued to increase as its EAF has grown, Windschitl says.

[SHRM Members' Only Q&A: How Do I Help Employees Deal with the Death of a Co-Worker?]

Emotional Support

​Deciding when to return to work after a loss is very personal, Kessler says. “Grievers have told me that what was most disruptive to them is they felt they needed to go back to work soon and they got judged on that.” 

'Grievers have told me that what was most disruptive to them is they felt they needed to go back to work soon and they got judged on that.' 

—David Kessler, Grief.com

People often assume that appearing at work a few days after a loved one dies means it wasn’t that big a loss, but that’s not a fair conclusion to draw. Some individuals find work a welcome distraction from the intensity of their grief. In other cases, employees have incurred large funeral expenses, so they need to go back to work immediately to pay their bills. For dual-income couples, losing a spouse can suddenly eliminate half or more of a family’s income, says Grant, co-author of Option B. That’s one reason EAFs like the one offered by U.S. Bank can be so helpful, he says. 

Keep in mind that every employee will deal with grief differently. “You have to look at the individual response and know that no two will be alike,” says Kessler, who is also founder of Grief.com, a website that provides information, resources and support to grieving individuals. 

When Kessler works with grieving clients, he says, it’s not the HR policy they complain about; it’s how their managers and co-workers reacted toward them as they tried to transition back to work. 

For instance, when Jeffers returned to work after her cousin died, she found it difficult to focus and would often cry in the middle of the day. Although her boss tried to be patient, he would often make insensitive comments such as, “I know you’re going through things, but we are in a huge growth period and we need everyone to be as focused as possible” and “I understand it was a loss, but we’re not paying you to sit around and do nothing.” 

While she was on her three-day bereavement leave, Jeffers was expected to respond to e-mails, and her boss even called her during the funeral when she didn’t respond to his texts. In the end, she quit her job soon after returning to work because she felt disrespected by her boss. She also resented that no one offered to take some work off her plate while she eased herself back into her normal responsibilities. 

In comparison, Marcia Noyes’ husband died on Nov. 1, 2013, her first day at a new job at Datica, a company in Madison, Wis., that provides a HIPAA-compliant cloud computing platform for health care. Instead of pressuring her to get to work as soon as possible, her boss told her to take all the time she needed to recover. At the time, Noyes and her husband were separated, and she was living in Texas and he was in Georgia. So she had a fair bit to handle logistically and emotionally before she could return to her job as director of communications.

In fact, Noyes didn’t return to work until January 2014. “You know you are working at a great company that cares about its people when they can work through things like this,” she says. “I am incredibly indebted to the company, and I would never look for more money or work for a competitor, ever.”


It’s essential that co-workers, HR and managers acknowledge that a huge loss has occurred in the employee’s life, Kessler says. He offers these guidelines for dealing with an employee who has lost a loved one:

Ask the employee, or a co-worker who is close to the worker, how he or she would like you to communicate with staff that he or she will be out of the office. If the bereaved individual doesn’t want to share much, simply state, “Jane had a loss in her immediate family and will be out for the next week.”

Be aware of when the funeral is taking place and whether the employee is traveling to get there. Refrain from contacting the employee during those times, and ask the person’s manager to do the same.

Avoid telling the employee you know what he or she is going through. Nobody knows what it’s like to have a spouse, child or parent die suddenly unless they have been through it themselves—and even then the experience is highly personal and individual. That said, if you haven’t yet experienced the death of a close family member and want to get a better understanding of what it feels like, ask trusted colleagues who have been through it if they’re willing to share their story so you can better relate to other employees.

Send flowers and, if the funeral is local, request that one or two representatives from the office attend. If possible, make a donation in the loved one’s memory to a recommended charity. At the very least, have everyone sign a card. 

Encourage the employee to make use of your employee assistance program.

If the employee learns about the death while at work, he or she will often come to HR with the news—so remember to expect the unexpected. Van Curen suggests keeping a binder of resources on hand. “You can’t give advice,” she says, “but you can provide resources for grief counselors, funeral homes, tax attorneys and florists.”

Changing the Paradigm

​Grant says writing Option B with Sandberg changed the way he supports colleagues when they experience a death in the family. Most people simply say, “I’m sorry for your loss” and ask if there is anything they can do to help. But that puts the burden on the person who is grieving to ask for assistance. “It is much more helpful to just do something,” Grant says. “Bring over a meal. Offer to watch the kids.”

Most people feel isolated after a family member dies, even if they are from a large family, Mason says. Often, others want to help but don’t know what to do, so they do nothing—which makes the bereaved person feel even more alone, she says. Offer to mow the lawn, pick up food at the grocery store, walk the dog or plan an outing for their children. 

“I couldn’t understand when friends didn’t ask me how I was,” writes Sandberg in Option B. “I felt invisible, as if I was standing in front of them but they couldn’t see me.”

'I couldn’t understand when friends didn’t ask me how I was. I felt invisible, as if I was standing in front of them but they couldn’t see me.'

—Sheryl Sandberg, co-author of Option B

​Keep in mind that the first year is typically the toughest, as individuals navigate all the milestones, anniversaries and birthdays without their loved one for the first time, Mason says. Sandberg writes in Option B about her sad “Year of Firsts”: “My son’s first birthday without his father. My first wedding anniversary without a spouse. And a new unwelcomed anniversary: the first anniversary of Dave’s death.” 

The more flexible an employer can be during this most difficult time, the more loyalty it will get in return over the long run. “If the employee has been with you a year or longer, and they’re a good employee,” Van Curen says, “why would you throw that away and not do everything in your power to support that person?”  

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Was this article useful? SHRM offers thousands of tools, templates and other exclusive member benefits, including compliance updates, sample policies, HR expert advice, education discounts, a growing online member community and much more. Join/Renew Now and let SHRM help you work smarter.

SPONSOR OFFERS

Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect