What Is Bereavement Leave?

A primer on the company policy that helps support grieving employees.

Written by Jeff Rumage
What Is Bereavement Leave?
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Dec 01, 2023

Bereavement leave is a workplace benefit that gives employees time off work to address their initial grief after the loss of someone important in their life. In the event of a close family member, bereavement leave gives the employee time to plan a funeral and handle a variety of financial and legal issues, like executing a will and closing bank accounts.

What Is Bereavement Leave?

Bereavement leave is a workplace benefit that grants an employee time off when they lose someone close to them. The intention is to give an employee time to grieve, plan funeral arrangements, figure out will details and fulfill other personal needs and duties as part of the mourning process.

In this article, we discuss what qualifies for bereavement leave, how much time off bereavement leave typically provides and the ways in which bereavement leave policies are changing.

 

What Is Bereavement Leave? 

Most employers allow employees to take time off work through a benefit known as bereavement leave, which is an important component of a holistic time-off package that may also include paid time off, sick leave and parental leave. By offering bereavement leave, companies demonstrate to their employees that they care about their life outside of work. Giving employees time to care for their mental health during bereavement also contributes to a more productive and engaged workforce.

The percentage of U.S. employers offering paid bereavement leave has increased over the years. Roughly 91 percent of employers offered the benefit in 2023, which is up 10 percent from 2016, according to SHRM’s employee benefits surveys.
 

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Do Companies Have to Provide Bereavement Leave?

Federal labor law does not require U.S. companies to provide employees with bereavement leave. Even so, a number of states are taking legislative action:

  • Oregon: The Oregon Family Leave Act requires organizations with 25 or more employees to provide at least two weeks of unpaid bereavement leave.
     
  • California: The California Family Rights Act requires organizations with five or more employees to offer up to five days of bereavement leave after the death of a family member. Companies are not required to pay you for bereavement leave, but they must allow employees to use other types of paid leave during this time.
     
  • Illinois: The Family Bereavement Leave Act requires organizations with 50 or more employees to offer up to 10 days of unpaid leave after the death of a family member or after a pregnancy or adoption loss. Beginning in 2024, the Child Extended Bereavement Leave Act will require organizations with 50 or more employees to offer up to six weeks of unpaid leave if their child dies by suicide or homicide. Organizations with 250 or more employees must offer up to 12 weeks.
     
  • Maryland: The Maryland Flexible Leave Act requires organizations with 15 or more employees to allow their workers to use any of their accrued paid time for bereavement leave.

 

Why Do Employers Offer Bereavement Leave?

While offering bereavement leave is not required by law everywhere, most employers will offer the benefit as a way to show compassion to grieving employees. Besides, employees are unlikely to be productive during this time, so there’s not much to gain by requiring them to work.

“With a bereavement policy, it shows employees you care and it’s a loyalty thing,” Jodi Bohr, an employment and labor attorney with Tiffany & Bosco, told Built In. “How do you think people will feel about their employer when they’re forced to come into the office right after they lost a spouse or a parent?”

 

Do You Get Paid During Bereavement Leave?

Most companies pay employees during bereavement leave. About 91 percent of the more than 4,200 companies that participated in SHRM’s Employee Benefit Survey said they offered paid bereavement leave to their employees.

Whether or not the leave is paid or unpaid, a bereavement leave policy ensures that your job will be there for you when you return after the time specified in your employer’s policy.

 

How Long Is Bereavement Leave Typically?

In a 2016 SHRM survey of more than 2,000 organizations, the average bereavement leave for a spouse or child was four days on average, whereas a loss of another relative averaged three days. But expectations around bereavement leave are shifting, leading to changes to the workplace benefit itself.
 

Bereavement Leave Typically Lasts up to 5 Days 

A 2023 study by NFP found that 57 percent of organizations still offer three days while 18 percent of organizations now offer five days of bereavement leave. HR software company Paycor recently expanded its bereavement leave from three days to five days to keep up with tech industry norms, said Jennifer Gessendorf, Paycor’s VP of total rewards and HR operations. Many companies, including Paycor, also allow employees to use paid or unpaid time off if they need additional time to grieve, she added.

Some tech companies have extended their bereavement leave far beyond the industry average. In 2017, Meta doubled its bereavement leave to 20 days for the death of an immediate family member and 10 days for an extended family member.

 

Employees Want Longer Bereavement Leave as an Option

Donna Wilson, a nursing professor at the University of Alberta, co-authored a study about bereavement in the workplace, which found that nearly all of the employees who received three days of bereavement time either took additional paid vacation time, sick leave time or asked for a few extra days of paid or unpaid leave.

“Typically in that time, you’ve got the shock of the news. Then you need time to plan and attend the funeral. So much of that happens in the first week,” Wilson told Built In. “By the end of that first week, you’re starting to sleep again, the relatives begin to go home and things start to go back to being normal again.”

 

Flexibility Is Best Practice 

Some organizations require employees to take their bereavement leave immediately following the person’s death, but other plans allow employees to space out their leave throughout the year. This flexibility can be helpful after a loss because grief can sometimes come in waves over time.

“Oftentimes in the first days following the death of a loved one, there’s a lot of logistics that have to be taken care of,” Kickstand CEO Molly George told Built In. “You might not even get to the point in your grieving process to actually process things for days, weeks or months.”

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What Qualifies as Bereavement Leave?

While bereavement leave policies look different at each company, companies almost always spell out the details of their policy in their employee handbook. Companies typically list which family members qualify as immediate or close family members and what scenarios are covered under this policy.
 

Loss of Family Members

Bereavement leave policies have traditionally covered the death of both immediate and extended family members, but more companies are expanding their policies to include non-familial relations.

 

Loss of Close Relations Outside the Traditional Family

2023 survey by NFP found 32 percent of companies have expanded their coverage to include the death of any close relation to the employee. This could include friends, mentors or neighbors.

“It’s no longer just the immediate family. It could be an aunt who took care of the employee, for example,” Rosa Hardesty, knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management, told Built In. “I think employers are talking to their employees more and finding out what’s important and through those conversations recognizing that relationships are different and what is important to one person may be different for another.”

 

Pregnancy Loss

A growing number of companies include pregnancy loss in their bereavement leave policy. This both assures employees that they can take that time off and helps reduce stigma of an issue that affects 10 to 20 percent of pregnancies.

“That is no less in magnitude than the loss of an elderly grandparent that you have had in your life for years and years and years,” said George, who includes pregnancy loss in her company’s bereavement policy.

About 24 percent of organizations surveyed by NFP have expanded their bereavement policy to include pregnancy loss, which can include either a miscarriage or a failed IVF attempt. Companies that don’t specify pregnancy loss in their bereavement leave policy may also allow employees to take paid time off, sick time or medical leave in these situations.

Several governments have added pregnancy loss to their bereavement leave policies too. New Zealand was among the first countries to require paid leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth. In the U.S., city officials in PittsburghPortland and Boston have offered paid bereavement leave to municipal employees who have either lost a pregnancy or are partnered with someone who has.

 

Pet Loss

About 20 percent of pet owners experience significant grief after the loss of a pet, according to a 2009 study out of the University of Hawaii.

“What I’ve seen is more and more people are having furbabies,” said study co-author Julie Ann Luiz Adrian, noting that many young couples have chosen pet ownership instead of parenthood. “They’re accepting pets as part of their family instead of thinking of them as pets.”

Seven percent of organizations surveyed in the NFP study included the death of a pet in their bereavement policy.
 

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What’s Included in a Bereavement Leave Policy?

Each company can tailor its bereavement leave policy to its employees’ needs, but every policy should contain the following details. 

  • Bereavement leave definition: Companies should define bereavement leave and what types of loss qualify under the policy. HR may add what activities bereavement leave is intended to cover, such as attending a funeral and reviewing a will.   
  • Bereavement leave length: Companies should specify how long bereavement leave lasts and whether this varies depending on the type of loss. Employees should also know if they can use PTO and other benefits if they’d like to extend their leave. 
  • Pay details: Companies should clarify whether bereavement leave is a paid or unpaid benefit. This section should also explain the process employees can take if they’re worried about lost wages in the event bereavement leave is unpaid.  
  • How to request bereavement leave: Companies should develop guidelines for how employees can request bereavement leave. If proof of loss is required, HR can list what items are acceptable, such as a death certificate, obituary or funeral program.
  • Employee resources: Companies might also use this opportunity to direct grieving employees to mental health resources, such as an employee assistance program that offers free counseling for a limited number of sessions.

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What Employers and Coworkers Can Do for Bereaved Employees

When an employee is going through the loss of a loved one, supervisors and coworkers should be sympathetic to the employee and see if there is anything they can do to help. Grief counselors say it is much better to acknowledge an employee’s loss and offer their condolences instead of staying silent in fear of saying the wrong thing.

If you’re struggling to find the right words, here are three ways you can help bereaved coworkers:

  • Offer concrete ways you would like to help, such as allowing them to use your office if they ever feel a need to cry or taking over some of their workload, rather than a vague offer to be there should they ever need help.
  • Remind the bereaved coworker counseling services are available through the company’s healthcare benefits program, if available.
  • Ask them if they would like to talk about how they’re feeling and tell you about the type of relationship they had with the loved one who passed.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

A 2016 SHRM survey found that companies offer an average of three to four days off to employees who have lost an immediate family member and one day off to employees who have lost an extended family member. However, bereavement leave policies differ with each company.

Bereavement leave can either be paid or unpaid. Most companies offer paid bereavement leave, but there are no state laws requiring employers to offer paid bereavement leave.

Bereavement leave policies tend to offer more time off when employees have lost an immediate family member, like a spouse, child or parent. Employees might receive less time off for an extended family member, like an aunt, uncle, grandparent or friend.

An earlier version of this story was written by Dawn Kawamoto and published in 2022.

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