Rethinking Bereavement

In the last two weeks, I have sent four bereavement cards to colleagues and friends suffering the loss of a parent. It really got me thinking about how difficult loss is right now. My friends were not able to be with their parents when they passed, nor could they experience the comfort and closure of a ceremony to mark the passing. For many people during these times of social distancing, the consolation one would normally get from friends and family must come from afar – there’s no shoulder to cry on, no hugs. Grief is hard enough in normal times, but the traditions that help people cope have been upended.

Given these hard realities, employers may need to think about bereavement differently. In a normal year, grief has a significant impact on the US workforce. A 2019 WebMD study found that 57% of US workers were grieving the loss of someone within the past three years. Most workers say that grief affects their productivity and decision-making abilities, and the Grief Recovery Institute has estimated the cost of lost productivity and absenteeism related to grief at $75-100 billion annually. In this anything-but-normal time, the toll will only increase.  

Employee Benefit News published a very thoughtful piece on bereavement, and described some new resources that employers might consider to help support employees; for example, a text-based grief coaching program and an app-based platform that helps with end-of-life planning as well as grief support.

Here are some thoughts on how employers can provide support to grieving workers.

  • Acknowledge the loss. It’s important that colleagues know that someone they work with has experienced a loss. At the same time, consider having the manager or HR representative serve as the point person, to determine what form of support would be welcome and to explain any boundaries to well-meaning colleagues.
  • Paid leave. Most companies provide 3-5 days – is that enough? After Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg was very public about the loss of her husband, several large employers including Facebook, Airbnb and General Mills expanded their bereavement policies to cover up to 20 days of paid time off.
  • Flexibility. is another important consideration. What would “light duty” return to work for emotional injury look like?

Because of COVID-19, more employees than usual may be dealing with a loss without the typical sources of help and healing. Leadership and compassion is so very important right now.

Tracy Watts
by Tracy Watts

Senior Partner, National Leader for U.S. Health Policy

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