The COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on a topic that typically doesn't get much consideration from HR: employee bereavement policies.
In a time when some employees are still mourning the loss of loved ones from the disease, many organizations are updating how they approach bereavement and what is covered within official policies. That includes a review of how much time off is necessary, what scheduling flexibility should be provided and the best way to define what bereavement really means.
After losing a loved one during the pandemic, Corey Tyner, founder and president at Buy Yo Dirt in Phoenix, changed his company's approach to bereavement.
"This led me to rethink our bereavement policy and made me realize that it's important for everyone to have sufficient grieving time and the right amount of support," said Tyner, who has 200 employees at the Arizona-based business, which buys and sells land for its clients.
First, the business revised the number of days provided for personal leave by making it more flexible depending on what each employee said they needed. Next, it started offering grief counseling to any employee who requested it. And finally, after employees returned from leave, they were offered help with pacing their workload to make the transition back to the office as easy as possible.
"This is to ensure that people get sufficient time to process their emotions after losing a loved one," he said.
More employers added longer leave periods and grief counseling for employees as the pandemic wore on. "Our standard bereavement policy now extends up to 20 days for anyone," said Jared Stern, CEO and HR manager at Uplift Legal Funding in Los Angeles, which provides lawsuit loans. The firm also started offering grief counseling. "We made these changes because of COVID," he said. "It's crucial to have a strong bereavement policy for employees, as it helps them take the necessary time and steps to heal."
However, not all changes are taking place as a result of the pandemic. Bereavement polices often are updated due to an employee's personal experience with loss. At The Kitchen Community in Beaufort, S.C., a website with 20 employees that offers recipes, bereavement leave was doubled from two to four weeks in the aftermath of a loss that impacted the company.
"COVID had nothing to do with [our] policy change, but watching a colleague go through hell while her partner slowly wasted away and eventually passed away after a long battle with cancer did," said creative director and co-founder Christina Russo. "We knew we had to change the way that we approached bereavement, and needed to do as much as [we] could to help support our staff through the grieving process."
Some businesses have started offering unlimited time off for employees, including bereavement leave, and making that aspect clear to employees is important, said Adin Bailey, vice president of people at Cariloop in Dallas.
"We wanted to eliminate the worry of our team in needing to balance their time away between truly unplugging (such as with vacations) and when they need that critical time for some of life's most difficult moments," said Bailey, whose company provides caregiver support to families and has 113 employees. "We also understand that this time is going to look different for everyone, and we wanted to give them the time and space they need."
An Expanded Definition of Bereavement
Bereavement typically applies when an employee has lost a loved one. However, at Mintz, a Boston-based law firm with 1,150 employees nationally, the definition of bereavement was changed to include pregnancy loss as well.
"One of our employees raised the idea of offering leave to recognize grief associated with pregnancy loss and infertility," said Heather Kelly, Mintz's chief talent officer. "She felt that recognizing grief, as opposed to only the medical aspects, associated with these life events was important, and we agreed. As we considered her idea, we saw an intersection with our bereavement policy and revamped our entire approach to these leave programs."
Mintz expanded its bereavement policy to 15 paid days off for the loss of an immediate family member or a miscarriage. "We also offer five days of paid leave for failed fertility treatments," Kelly said. "We refer to the new policy as our Compassionate Leave Policy."
Best Practices for Updating Policies
Following federal and state laws when creating bereavement policies is critical, but so is responding to employee needs, said Alex Nadal, assistant general counsel and human resources consultant at Engage PEO in Fort Lauderdale.
"We have routinely counseled employers to maintain bereavement policies that should clearly define when an employee is entitled to take bereavement leave, how long they are entitled to leave and for which relationships the policy applies," she said.
Generally, Nadal recommends including in-laws, step-relatives and same-sex partners when defining family. "We strongly recommend using gender neutral terms like parent, grandparent, child and sibling rather their gendered equivalents," she said. "Many employers are now including limited time off for nonfamilial relationships, such friends or other co-workers."
Many states don't have laws regarding bereavement. But if companies have employees working in different states—as many now do because of changing remote policies—they need to comply with laws specific to those areas, Nadal said.
"Having more generous and omnibus policies that benefit all employees has made it easier for many employers to stay in compliance in different jurisdictions," she said.
Nadal added that if an employer's bereavement policy isn't generous, it could negatively impact the company's relationship with its employees.
"The death of an employee's loved one or someone close to them is an emotional journey," she said. "How an employee is treated in this vital time may affect their loyalty and engagement with the employer. They will not forget, and possibly not forgive, that their employer required them to use vacation or PTO to attend a funeral, or worse, declined a request for time off due to the death of someone close to them."
Developing a robust bereavement policy also is good for business, Tyner said, since it ensures that employees are able to function at their highest level and feel well-cared for.
"If employee morale is high, they will perform well in their jobs, which will have a direct impact on the business's productivity and product quality," he said. "This can be achieved by making the working staff feel valued. To do this, businesses should introduce policies in the best interest of their workers. One of the most important of these policies is the bereavement policy."
Russo agreed that having a strong bereavement policy is crucial "because death, loss and grief affect everyone differently. We need to show the world that [a business values its] employees as much as it does profit."
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.