Bereavement leave is critical for workers who have recently lost a loved one. Workers mourning a family member or a close friend need adequate time away both to process their emotions and to attend (or even plan) a funeral or memorial service. Here's how union boards can make it easier for members to navigate this difficult time.
Understanding the Effects of Bereavement
In the workplace, workers mourning a loved one may be less focused and productive. Grieving workers may also be absent from work more often. Grief takes a toll on workers' health — both physical and mental. There is some evidence that grief can increase inflammation and affect the immune system, which can worsen any current health problems an employee may have.
Extreme stress resulting from grief is also connected to heart health, particularly due to changes in heart muscle cells and coronary blood vessels that can keep the left side of the heart from contracting properly. Workers in grief may be at higher risk for increased blood pressure, chest pain and heart attacks.
Often, grief takes time and has a long-lasting effect on workers' lives, especially if their loved one was a close relative. In addition to mental health issues, such as depression and apathy, grief experts point to several stages of grief that mourners typically need to pass through, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.
Outlining Standard Bereavement Policies
Employers, however, aren't required to give workers paid time off to process their grief, even to attend a family member's funeral, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act — though most do. For the majority of workers, the standard bereavement policy is just three to seven days of leave depending on if the person who died was a close or distant relative.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 paid leave survey, the average leave in 2016 was four days long for the death of a spouse or a child, but only three for the loss of a parent, grandparent, domestic partner, sibling, grandchild or foster child.
Creating Compassionate Guidelines
Some workers may feel that a handful of days isn't enough time, especially since not everyone dealing with a loss is treated compassionately at work. In one survey of Irish employees, about a third of respondents who had been bereaved in the past five years said their employer didn't treat them with kindness.
In general, offering workers more time to handle their grief, rather than less, can pay off in the long run. For one thing, it could actually end up costing less, says Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. A few years ago, Facebook began offering up to 20 days of bereavement leave upon a family member's death. Mastercard then extended its leave for workers as well.
An expanded policy comes with pros and cons. Having a compassionate and comprehensive bereavement policy in the workplace may also help to increase workers' loyalty and engagement. Giving workers enough time to grieve also means that when they do return to work, they're more likely to be focused and productive on the job. While they're away, though, other workers may have to fill in the gaps, and absent workers may have to play catch-up when they return.
Because death affects everyone differently, some workers may need more time off than others to process their grief. Companies that provide generous bereavement leave may find that some workers don't want to use the full time offered and would rather resume work quickly.
Advocating Adequate Bereavement Leave
Aim to build a policy that's flexible enough to be tailored to workers' individual circumstances. Ideally, workers themselves should have input on how much time they want off for themselves. Language choice matters: Try switching your official "bereavement policy" to a more adaptable set of bereavement guidelines.
As a union leader, you're positioned to promote a compassionate bereavement leave policy on behalf of your members. Well-thought-out guidelines can also serve as a powerful recruitment and retention tool — whether they need to take leave or not, workers will appreciate flexible guidelines that take their needs to heart.
With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.