· 5 min read
In corporate America, bereavement leave is increasingly seen as table stakes, and most employers now grant some amount of paid time off to workers dealing with the death of someone close to them.
But professionals who work with grieving people also note that the healing process isn’t linear, and are urging HR departments to expand their bereavement benefits. Workers who’ve dealt with death in recent years tell HR Brew that bereavement leave was essential, but grieving didn’t stop once they went back to work.
“Grief comes in waves,” said Stephanie K. Badgett, a senior communications consultant for Wells Fargo, who lost both her parents suddenly in 2020. “Sometimes you’re just treading in the water. And other times, it feels like you’re drowning.” Badgett said she was grateful to be able to take a week of leave when each of her parents died. Having the flexibility to ease back into her job—with the understanding she could take more time if she needed to—made a big difference, too.
Angela Norvitch, a user experience designer, received three days of bereavement leave for two major deaths in her family: First her sister, who passed away from breast cancer in 2018, and then her father, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2020. In her experience, three days wasn’t enough. “That’s not any time to actually process and just allow yourself to recover, or start to recover,” she said.
Advocating for better bereavement leave. Bereavement leave offerings aren’t often “connected to the research on, or the realities of, the experience of grief and loss and what people actually need,” Becca Bernstein, a senior manager with Option B, a network for people experiencing loss and hardship, told HR Brew.
When employees come back to work too soon after the loss of a loved one, it can lead to high rates of absenteeism and productivity loss, harming work performance, Bernstein said. The Grief Recovery Institute estimates “hidden grief” costs US companies more than $75 billion each year.
Option B, which was launched by former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg following the sudden death of her husband, is currently advocating for employers to expand their bereavement and compassionate leave offerings.
A 2023 survey by insurance broker NFP found 57% of employers surveyed offered three days of bereavement leave, while 18% offered five days.
“We know that grief doesn’t take three days,” Bernstein said, arguing this is barely enough time to plan a funeral. Option B would like to see employers offer more—and noted that some companies, like Adobe and Liberty Mutual, provide up to 20 days of bereavement leave for the loss of an immediate family member.
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Bernstein said Option B is also recommending employers allow bereavement leave to be taken non-consecutively, recognizing that grief is not a linear process, and for pregnancy loss, a practice more HR departments have picked up on in recent years (Goldman Sachs and Pinterest are among the companies offering leave to employees who go through miscarriages).
Beyond the business case for bereavement. Aside from the emotional toll, grief often poses complex logistical challenges for employees, who may be tasked with planning a funeral, for example, or managing the estate of a family member who passed away.
Empathy, a bereavement care platform that launched in 2021, focuses on helping employees navigate these complex logistics. Co-founder and CEO Ron Gura said the product was informed by his own experience of losing a brother.
“The emotional toll was one thing, but understanding there’s also bureaucracy and administration involved was really something that was mind-boggling to some extent,” Gura told HR Brew.
Employers including Goldman Sachs and Checkout.com have partnered with Empathy, which had raised $43 million in venture capital funding as of 2021. (The company has not disclosed its valuation.) Through an app, the platform offers employees assistance with estate settlement, as well as streamlining processes such as canceling bank accounts for those who have died.
In conversations with employers, Gura said he tries to highlight the potential productivity-related outcomes from investing in a benefit like Empathy—when workers use their services, the company estimates organizations see a 25% reduction in lost productivity, thanks to time saved on tasks typically required to settle an estate and based on an internal metric.
Option B is also highlighting the business case for enhanced bereavement benefits in its campaign, noting that calling workers back into the office too soon can cost them billions of dollars in the long run, and failing to properly support workers dealing with grief may lead to higher rates of turnover.
But while it’s important for HR leaders to highlight the potential ROI of these benefits in conversations with leadership, “It’s also just the right thing to do,” Bernstein said. “HR leaders are really in a position to drive change around this and to become advocates.”