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Why Employers Need to Step Up on Bereavement Benefits

closeup of two people holding hands, symbolizing comfort or grief

When Diane Bergeron, senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, asked in her session June 25 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2024 (SHRM24) how many people have experienced the death of someone close to them as a working professional, virtually every one of the approximately 50 attendees in the room raised an arm.

This just proves that grief and death are constants in our lives, she said—and why workplace support for people dealing with loss is so vital.

“This is why we need to be talking more about this. There are so many grieving employees walking around among us, and we don't even know it,” Bergeron said. “We are all going to be bereaved at some point.”

Grief has a huge impact on employers—in terms of employees’ loss of focus, productivity, and performance and risk for physical ailments and mental health issues—yet employers still are not getting bereavement leave or other support right, she said. And it’s all ripe, and time, for change.

There have been some recent advancements in workplace bereavement support, Bergeron said: The Defense Department last year announced a new paid bereavement leave benefit for service members, allowing them to take up to two weeks of leave in connection with the death of a spouse or child. In 2017, Meta (then known as Facebook) doubled its bereavement leave to 20 days for the death of an immediate family member and 10 days for an extended family member. And some employer policies for bereavement now cover miscarriage or failed adoption or surrogacy as well. (SHRM’s 2024 Employee Benefits Survey, in fact, found that more than one-third of employers that offer bereavement leave now offer time off for a failed pregnancy, surrogacy, or adoption.)

Overall, SHRM found that among its member organizations, 91% offer some paid time off for bereavement—but that’s well above the national average of about 65%, Bergeron said.

Despite recent advancements, bereavement policies still fall short, she said: About 30% of employees said they had to use vacation or sick days after the death of a family member, according to a 2023 survey of 715 employees by the Center for Creative Leadership. Employees also said that more paid time off following a loss is the No. 1 thing they want from their employer.

“When you offer more bereavement days, it offers a safety net,” Bergeron explained.

Meanwhile, most companies offer only a few days for bereavement; most don’t allow longer leave for bereavement that may involve international travel and/or longer religious or cultural practices; and most have limitations on relationships defined in a bereavement policy. (While most policies cover spouses, parents, or children, for instance, many don’t allow time off for unmarried romantic partners, close friends, or pets).

“The definitions of family are expanding, and we must evolve,” Bergeron said.

Employers should also consider allowing employees to take staggered leave following a loss, as this allows people to have more time off for grief and can help if someone needs to take care of things such as caregiving, estate planning, or attending a funeral.

“Bereavement is not a linear, staged process,” Bergeron said. “In bereavement, the person might be still in shock, and they might come back and be fine for a few weeks, but then it might be like, ‘OK, I really need two days off.’ ”

Other Support for Bereaved Employees

Bereavement leave is ripe for change, but other benefits and types of support can be just as important, Bergeron said.

These include:

  • Trained grief counselors.
  • Mental health apps.
  • Bereavement support apps and digital platforms, such as Empathy and Betterleave.
  • Funeral or memorial assistance.
  • Sending a card, flowers, or meal or restaurant gift cards.
  • Allowing hybrid or remote work.
  • More breaks, especially for workers in retail or service industries who are dealing with customers.
  • Regular managerial support and check-ins to see what employees need.

“There’s a lot more that organizations can do,” Bergeron said.

The additional support aside from bereavement leave was a lesson learned by session attendee Petrushka Kreitman, an HR director at law firm Carpenter, Zuckerman & Rowley in Los Angeles. She said she is considering boosting support, including grief counseling, for employees going through a loss.

“One of the most important things I learned is making sure that we don’t isolate people. People going through loss feel so much isolation, and we want to make sure [our employees] understand it’s OK to talk to people, and talk about what they are going through,” Kreitman said. “It’s really important to be prepared if and when things like this happen.”


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