Policies Alone Fall Woefully Short In Dealing With Grief In The Workplace

Bereavement leave won't help grieving employees excel at work. Good leadership can.
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The 117th United States Congress will convene in January, and at some point, the House of Representatives will presumably take up H.R. 983, a bipartisan bill designed to amend the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to add the death of a child as a qualifying life event, entitling employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave.

Undeniably, H.R. 983, known as the “Parental Bereavement Act” or the “Sarah Grace-Farley-Kluger Act,” is a positive step in supporting employees who are dealing with an unthinkable loss. Still, as a leadership expert specializing in helping grieving employees excel at work, I deem that the bill, as well-intentioned as it may be, falls woefully short of what is truly needed.

This is especially true considering the financial impact of the unrelenting Covid-19 pandemic on employees’ lives. According to MetLife’s 2020 U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study, more than half (52%) of full-time employees in the U.S. are concerned about their financial health in the wake of the pandemic, including new threats to their job security or income. Already, as a result of Covid-19, almost 40% of employees say their job or employment status has been directly impacted, with close to 30% saying they are earning less. Many would not be able to afford to take any unpaid leave—let alone 12 weeks—to grieve a loss.

Furthermore, with the notable exception of Oregon, there are no state laws requiring companies to provide leave, paid or unpaid, for employees silently grieving after losing a loved one. This means that employers are left to their own devices in developing and implementing a well-structured bereavement leave policy — a critically important task given the $75–$100 billion annual cost of grief in the workplace, due to factors such as lost productivity, poor performance and on-the-job errors, according to a study conducted by the Grief Recovery Institute.

The good news is that these days most employers—88% according to the Society for Human Resource Management—are choosing to offer employees paid bereavement leave. But is that good enough? My answer is a resounding “no.”

It’s time that companies transcend the old, outdated policies of giving employees two to four days off to grieve the death of a loved one and, instead, examine the broader issues at play: when done in isolation, bereavement leave is just a Band-Aid to a profoundly complex issue.

The bigger picture

In offering bereavement leave, companies focus almost exclusively on helping employees deal with the grief that comes with losing a family member. And while that is important, they’re missing the larger picture.

Any number of emotionally traumatic events can trigger a human being to grieve. In this context, beyond the loss of a loved one, there is divorce, addiction, depression, domestic abuse, a devastating medical diagnosis, and on and on.

Add to this the historic, cascading crises precipitated by Covid-19 — a deadly once-in-a-century pandemic, Depression-era levels of economic despair, glaring racial disparities and health inequities afflicting communities of color, and the grave threats to the most immediate, frontline health care workers — and the magnitude of emotional trauma and grief in the workplace is staggering.

This is a clarion call to leaders to move beyond bereavement leave policies and care for employees’ emotional well-being overall, now and long after Covid-19 is in the rearview mirror.

The study by the Grief Recovery Institute, cited earlier, forecasts the annual cost to the U.S. workplace of eight major grief incidents. Besides the death of an immediate family member ($37.6 billion), this also includes divorce ($11.1 billion); family crisis ($9 billion); death of a friend, colleague, or extended family member ($7 billion); financial loss ($4.6 billion); major lifestyle change ($2.4 billion); and death of a pet ($2.4 billion). (Learn more here and here and here.)

While these numbers may be subjective and far from exact, they demonstrate why bereavement leave policies alone fail to address other, very real and traumatic grief-triggering events in life.

Leadership matters more than policies

When all is said and done, employees will remember less about their employer’s policies and more about how company leadership treated them. A generous, even next-level bereavement leave policy can’t make up for a manager who constantly calls or emails an employee while they are off — asking for this or that, hinting around for their early return to work, or just innocently saying how much they miss them. Any and all goodwill will be lost.

In doing research for my book, The Dying Art of Leadership, employees told me over and over again: “If I had worked for someone else, I don’t know that I would have been treated the same way.” And everyone, to a person, said this whether or not their company’s leaders treated them well or poorly. It is the actions and attitudes of leaders, starting at the highest levels, that create an organization’s work culture. And no amount of policymaking can overcome bad or insensitive leadership.

Dealing with emotional trauma and grief in the workplace can be uncomfortable, if not downright difficult. Too bad, then, that it’s also the least talked about and least trained for challenge that leaders face.

Grief in the workplace is a costly, existential problem that today’s CEOs and CHROs, among other execs and leaders, must meet head-on. And dotting i’s and crossing t’s on bereavement leave policies won’t do. Leaders must create work cultures and environments that consider employees’ emotional safety and well-being as a whole, as human beings with deeper, more complex needs. Here are three ways to get started.

1. Embrace the full spectrum of grief-triggering events.

There are a whole host of emotionally traumatic events that can cause an employee to grieve and thereby become less productive and engaged in their work. To ignore, overlook or minimize this reality is a perilous leadership mistake.

2. Focus on culture, not policy.

Let your cultural vision lead the way. Only then can you implement or improve on specific policies and benefits that support employees’ emotional well-being and help them succeed on the job. This includes everything from flexible working to paid time off. (And, yes, bereavement leave, too.)

3. Evaluate and train for leadership skill gaps.

To help leaders gain the confidence and competencies to deal with grief in the workplace, start conducting specific skills training. Consider critical soft skills, such as compassion, empathy, flexibility and active listening. Moreover, a one-off isn’t enough; follow up early and often.

Grief is an inevitable, natural part of life. According to the Grief Recovery Institute, one in four employees is grieving at any given time. And unresolved grief can lead to costly physical and mental health ailments, including anxiety, depression, addiction, cardiovascular risk and recurring illness. This manifestly impacts an employee’s ability to think, work, innovate, collaborate and get things done. And it affects their co-workers and work teams, too.

So it’s time for companies to step up and help grieving employees excel at work. And that starts with leaders who get the larger picture and, well beyond bereavement leave, take concrete, ongoing action.

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