When A Loved One Dies, Is Your Company There for You?

The average bereavement leave in the U.S. is just three days. Advocates say that’s not enough.

In November 2016, Sidra Trajcevska reported for her first day of work at a big law firm in Southern California. The next day, her father had a massive heart attack. By Monday, the family had to make the agonizing decision to take him off life support.

Of course, Trajcevska wished she were at the hospital the whole time, but she felt uneasy leaving work. She had told her managers about the situation and received their condolences, but she felt it was nothing more than “lip service.”

“Nobody told me proactively, ‘Here’s our policy, this is what’s available to you,’” she says. “I was so confused. I was new, and I really feared that I might lose my job for taking time off.”

Her father died the Monday before Thanksgiving, so she had some breathing room during the holiday, which she was able to supplement with her three days of bereavement leave. But the next week she was back in the office, feeling “numb the entire time,” Trajcevska tells us.

Unfortunately, her experience isn’t unusual in the U.S. Three days of PTO is the average amount of time most companies give their employees to grieve, according to data from the Society for Human Resources Management.

But anyone who’s experienced a loss knows that it’s almost impossible to plan a funeral, settle legal or financial issues, and mourn in the space of just three days — “and the reality is that many people are receiving even less than that,” says Becca Bernstein, the head of Option B, a nonprofit founded by former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg and named after her 2017 book.

In the past few years, we’ve made significant (though still insufficient) progress when it comes to parental leave; the same can’t be said for bereavement benefits. Why? Death is hard to talk about, and it’s particularly stigmatized in our culture, Bernstein says, but if we’re not having those conversations, it’s difficult to create change.

The pandemic, however, and the wave after wave of casualties it wrought, has begun to change that, says Bernstein, who uses they/them pronouns. Large corporations, like Goldman Sachs and Liberty Mutual, have expanded their bereavement leave to 20 days and are also giving their employees time off for miscarriages. (Only one in four companies allow women to take time off for pregnancy loss, but more are slowly coming around to the idea, they say.)

“I think as our country wrestles with loss and grief after Covid, companies are starting to get really creative in finding ways to support their workforces,” Bernstein says.

There’s no federal bereavement policy, so employers are largely able to dictate how much time — if any — they give their workers off. But recently, some states have pushed to expand the benefit. In 2022, Oregon mandated that companies with 25 or more workers give 2 weeks to those who have lost a family member. And this year, both California and Illinois added bereavement to their PTO requirements.

That’s something, but there’s a lot more that can be done to help Americans dealing with loss, Bernstein says. On Aug. 30, National Grief Awareness Day, Option B is planning to roll out its policy recommendations. This includes one no-brainer: giving folks more PTO. But the group also suggests allowing people to take time off non-consecutively, because as Bernstein puts it, “grief is a nonlinear process.”

“We still think of grief in this country as something that’s over and done with quickly,” they say. “You attend the funeral and then you move on. But that’s not the reality of what grief looks like for most.”

That’s why giving employees the space to use their bereavement when they feel they need to —which may not be immediately after a death but could be, for example, on its anniversary — is important. Policies also shouldn’t be limited to just immediate family. They should reflect the fact that all of us have people in our lives, like a best friend or a grandparent that raised us, whose loss would be devastating, Bernstein says.

On a human level, giving someone room to sit with their sorrow and adjust to their new normal is simply the decent thing to do. And it makes a lot of sense from a corporate standpoint, too. Companies simply aren’t getting their best from workers in mourning, and not providing enough bereavement PTO could raise rates of employee burnout. Bernstein thinks more execs are beginning to recognize this, and creating more compassionate policies.

“We feel very hopeful that change can happen,” says Bernstein. “I do think that coming out of the pandemic, there’s more awareness that this is an important issue.”

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