How to Support Employees Through Grief

They say that in life there are only two certainties: Death and taxes.

While most companies have a slew of procedures and protocol in place for dealing with taxes, very few have a standard operating procedure for helping employees deal with the loss of a loved one, besides perhaps ordering some flowers and granting them a handful of days of bereavement leave.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Paid Leave in the Workplace Survey, most employers offer only four days for the death of a spouse or child, while three days are given for the loss of a parent, grandparent, domestic partner, sibling, grandchild or foster child, and two days offered for the death of a spouse’s relative or an extended family member. The death of a close friend or colleague, meanwhile, is generally not eligible for formal bereavement leave.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband unexpectedly in 2015, notes that, rather unsurprisingly, when an employee who has recently experienced a loss returns to work “grief can interfere with their job performance.” In fact, Sandberg notes that “in the United States alone, grief-related losses in productivity may cost companies as much as $75 billion annually.”

One way to offset this is to actually offer employees more time to deal with their loss in the form of a longer bereavement leave or a flexible or reduced-hour schedule upon their return. She notes that in doing so, a company can actually end up saving money, especially if they have built in mechanisms to help distribute work and meet deadlines in the absence of an employee.

At Facebook, for example, employees are offered up to 20 days of bereavement leave for the death of a family member, which is in line with the recommendation of grief experts. Meanwhile, Mastercard also recently upped its bereavement policy to include 20 days for the loss of a a spouse, domestic partner, child or stepchild; 10 days for the loss of a parent, sibling, grandparent or grandchild; and five days for an extended family member’s death.

Noting that some companies are not in a financial position to offer nearly a month of paid leave to employees, SHRM suggests that employers can get creative. Many police departments, for example, invite officers to donate vacation time to their peers who need additional leave, a custom that could easily be adapted to the corporate environment. In addition, for employees who are truly struggling with a loss, obtaining a note from a doctor recommending additional leave can allow them to be covered under FMLA.

However, it should be noted that not all employees will welcome additional time off. For some, work represents a welcome distraction from the grieving process and a chance to feel “normal” again. For others, losing a spouse may mean the loss of a significant portion of the family’s income, resulting in he or she feeling like they “need” to return to work in order to make ends meet. Regardless, Adam Grant, who served as co-author for Sandberg’s second book, notes that “people often assume that appearing at work a few days after a loved one dies means it wasn’t that big a loss, but that’s not a fair conclusion to draw.”

In addition to time off, one HR solution is to offer an Employee Assistance Program, or EAP. An EAP is a resource for employees that can connect them with mental health professionals and other services they might need and is included in a comprehensive benefits package. EAP services can include: many kinds of counseling–including grief counseling, psychological assistance and other support services.

These EAP services are a benefit to employees that help with retention and productivity because they can get the help they need at little or no out-of-pocket cost, in most cases.

The usage of EAP programs is on the rise among employees, up to a 10 percent increase in the past two years. This rise is attributed to more employees learning about the program through human resources.

At the end of the day, Joyce Van Curen, HR director at Turning Point Community Programs, a nonprofit mental health agency in Sacramento, notes that the more flexible an employer can be during bereavement, the more loyalty it will get in return over the long run. “If the employee has been with you a year or longer, and they’re a good employee, why would you throw that away and not do everything in your power to support that person?”