If your employee loses a loved one, it is important to support them with compassion and care. One way to help them through the initial days following their loss is to offer bereavement leave, which is time away from work to grieve the loss of a loved one, attend the funeral and tend to immediate post-death matters.
Although there are no federal laws requiring businesses to offer employee grief support and bereavement leave, every business should offer it.
Read on to learn about the best practices surrounding bereavement leave.
Why should your business provide bereavement leave?
Mindy Cassel, a licensed psychologist, thanatologist, co-founder and senior clinical advisor to the Children's Bereavement Center, said that companies and supervisors have an opportunity to influence the recovery of their employees by supporting them after a loss.
"The benefit to the company is that of greater appreciation and loyalty by both the griever and the staff for their compassion during a critical life event," Cassel told business.com. "The adjustment of the bereft employee will be enhanced by reduced stress, flexibility and social support."
The basics about bereavement leave
Navigating an appropriate response when an employee loses a loved one can be uncomfortable and confusing – especially as an employer. However, rather than shying away from the situation, offer your employee the support they need. A great way to do this is to have a well-defined bereavement leave policy in place.
What is bereavement leave?
Bereavement leave, also known as compassionate leave, is a period of paid or unpaid time off work an employee can take after they experience the death of a family member or friend. Employees can use bereavement leave to grieve the loss of their loved one, take care of arrangements, and plan or attend funeral services.
Is bereavement leave mandatory?
There are not currently any federal laws that require you to offer bereavement leave to your employees, and aside from the Oregon Family Leave Act in Oregon, there are no states that require employers to offer bereavement leave either. Still, you should familiarize yourself with the laws in your state.
Who can take bereavement leave?
Although any employee can take bereavement leave (e.g., full time, part time, entry level, management, etc.), it is up to your company to determine who those employees are.
Some companies may restrict bereavement leave to apply only to full-time employees who lose an immediate family member; other employers may offer more comprehensive policies that support any employee who experiences the loss of a loved one.
The best bereavement policies are comprehensive and allow eligible employees to take paid leave after the loss of any loved one, regardless of the employee's relationship to the deceased (e.g., spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, stepparent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, friend or neighbor). Your company bereavement leave policy should clearly state who is eligible for bereavement leave.
How long is bereavement leave?
The average bereavement leave policy grants an employee three to four days of time off for the loss of an immediate family member, like the employee's spouse, and often less time for the loss of extended family or friends.
Employees can often negotiate additional time off by using paid vacation days, sick leave or unpaid time off. Because bereavement leave is optional in most states, the number of days an employee can take off work will depend on what your bereavement leave policy dictates.
Is bereavement leave paid or unpaid?
Bereavement leave can be paid or unpaid; however, most businesses offer full or partial pay for the allotted days off.
Is "proof" required to take bereavement leave?
It is up to your company bereavement policy to determine whether an employee should provide documentation or proof of death to take bereavement leave.
Requiring proof can be uncomfortable, and you may appear insensitive, so approach the situation compassionately. If your policy requires proof, try to make it as easy as possible for the employee.
Shirley L. Toliver, founder and chief power officer of Life On Power, said reasonable examples of proof can include an obituary, funeral notice or written request that discloses the deceased's name, date of death, the relationship of the deceased to the employee, and city of death.
If your bereavement policy requires proof, consider adding a clause that allows the employee to submit it after they have returned to work.
Bereavement policy advice for business owners
Although bereavement leave is not legally mandatory in most states, it is a best practice for every business to offer some form of it. Companies can support their employees by creating a clear and comprehensive bereavement leave policy.
Toliver said a comprehensive bereavement leave policy should address the following:
- Who qualifies for bereavement leave?
- What are the guidelines for immediate family members, extended family members and friends?
- How many days of bereavement leave can an employee take?
- Is bereavement leave paid or unpaid?
- What are the guidelines for requesting bereavement leave?
- What documentation is required for bereavement leave requests?
- How will your current payroll system track bereavement leave?
It is important that your bereavement leave policy aligns with your available resources and is as inclusive as possible. When determining the guidelines for immediate and extended family members, Toliver advised owners and managers to remember that blended families are a large part of employee family life in our current society.
You may also want to create a policy that allows for flexibility as to the days that the employee can take off (e.g., the policy can indicate the number of days for bereavement leave, but the employee can schedule the specific days off with their immediate supervisor). Include the policy in your employee handbook and update it as needed. Apply the policy fairly across your organization.
"For optimal acceptable use of the bereavement policy, members of management should have an annual policy review, along with other annual pertinent policy reviews," said Toliver.
How to support a grieving employee
In addition to offering a bereavement policy, there are many ways that you and your team can assist a grieving colleague when they return to work.
Cassel shared the following tips on how business owners can support a grieving employee:
- Educate your staff about the needs of the grieving employee.
- Enable colleagues who work closely with the grieving employee to attend the funeral and memorial services.
- Offer the grieving employee a flexible work schedule that allows them to respond to their personal needs.
- When additional support is needed, find one or more employees who can assist with the employee's workload.
- Connect the grieving employee with company mentors, if possible (e.g., a staff member who is close to the employee or has experienced a similar loss, or can be an in-house resource for emotional support).
- Continue paying the employee's salary during leave and flex time.
- Don't call for work information during the funeral, wake or shiva.
- Send a donation, food or flowers, and ask if other assistance is needed (e.g., food shopping).
- Provide helpful resources like an Employee Assistance Program, HR support or local support services.