Bereavement Leave Is Evolving
Death is a common bond we all share, but the way we grieve is different. It’s tragically unfortunate, but true.
It comes in the form of lost loved ones, family members, friends and, of course, one day for us.
But despite death’s equity, the way employers treat bereavement leave can vastly vary and it continues to undergo significant changes today.
What Is Bereavement Leave?
Bereavement leave is either paid or unpaid job-protected time off from work, so you can attend the funeral service and absorb the impact of the loss.
“It’s really time to grieve and recover from a loss,” said Rosa Hardesty, knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in Alexandria, Virginia.
Over the years, the percentage of U.S. employers offering paid bereavement leave has largely risen, according to the 2020 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey.
U.S. employers offering paid bereavement leave
- 2016: 81 percent
- 2017: 79 percent
- 2018: 88 percent
- 2019: 89 percent
- 2020: 89 percent
Bereavement leave is typically a separate policy from a vacation policy or sick leave policy.
“Vacation time is something that’s planned for you to go and relax and enjoy yourselves. You’ve earned that time and so employers don’t want to take away from that time, so that may be why employers have separate buckets of time,” Hardesty said. “When an employer offers unlimited vacation time, typically in those policies, bereavement leave is included.”
The average number of paid days for bereavement leave varies based on the relationship the employee has with the one who has passed, according to 2017 figures from SHRM, its most recent data.
Bereavement leave for a spouse is four days on average, whereas loss of a significant other is three days, according to the SHRM survey.
“I haven’t seen many policies go beyond a week, but it gives you time to plan a funeral, attend a funeral and gives you some time to grieve. That’s really what bereavement leave is intended to do. It’s there to give you some time to get through the initial stage of your loss,” said Jodi Bohr, an employment and labor attorney with Tiffany & Bosco, based in Phoenix, Arizona.
“Since then, many companies have also extended their bereavement policy, and it sends the right message — people deserve time to heal and shouldn’t have to worry about their jobs during the hardest moment in their lives.”
One tech company took a dramatic step in revising its bereavement leave policy. Meta, formerly Facebook, announced in 2017 it would offer 20 days of bereavement leave to employees who lost an immediate family member and 10 days for an extended family member.
That bumped up its bereavement leave from its previous offering of 10 days for immediate family members and five days for extended family.
“I’m really proud of the steps Facebook [now Meta] has taken to support those coping with grief,” Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Menlo Park, California-based Meta, said in a 2018 statement provided to Built In. “Since then, many companies have also extended their bereavement policy, and it sends the right message — people deserve time to heal and shouldn’t have to worry about their jobs during the hardest moment in their lives.”
Sandberg, herself, suffered a tragic loss in 2015, when her husband Dave Goldberg died unexpectedly while the family vacationed in Mexico.
“Amid the nightmare of Dave’s death when my kids needed me more than ever, I was grateful every day to work for a company that provides bereavement leave and flexibility. I needed both to start my recovery,” Sandberg said in a post.
Since then, companies like Airbnb, PayPal, Zillow, Hootsuite, Bank of America, Mastercard, Headspace, Chegg, Liberty Mutual and the University of Chicago have also expanded their bereavement policies, said Jamila Reeves, spokeswoman for Meta.
Why Is Bereavement Leave Important?
Bereavement leave is designed to give employees time to address their initial grief after the loss of a loved one, family member, friend or colleague.
And the cost of grief can be high, not only for employees but also for employers.
Grieving employees cost U.S. employers over $61 billion in lost productivity, according to the most recent figures from The Grief Recovery Institute’s 2017 grief index.
Employers’ Lost Productivity Costs Due to Bereaved Employees
- Death of a loved one: $49.3 billion
- Death of extended family members, friends, colleagues: $9.2 billion
- Death of a pet: $3.1 billion
Companies that offer bereavement leave may find more pros than cons, said Bohr, who frequently advises clients to consider adding a bereavement leave policy to their benefits package when updating their policies.
Employers will likely face a minimal level of productivity from an employee immediately after they’ve had a loss, so there is not much to gain if they come into work, Bohr said. She also noted there is likely to be some distraction in the workforce as employees console their co-worker who is still wrought with grief.
“But with a bereavement policy, it shows employees you care and it’s a loyalty thing,” Bohr said. “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?”
Grief experts say a minimum of five business days is usually a good place to start in establishing a bereavement leave policy.
“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. 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,” Donna Wilson, a professor of the nursing program at the University of Alberta in Canada and co-author of research paper “A Study to Understand the Impact of Bereavement Grief on the Workplace” told Built In.
“There’s a misconception that when a loss happens in our personal lives it somehow doesn’t impact us when we go back to work.”
That said, however, some people prefer to dive back into work right away to distract them from their grief, while others need a few days to a week to get past the initial shock and grief, she said. It’s best to be flexible and allow grieving employees the option to come back earlier from leave if they want or find workarounds if more time is needed.
Virtually all of the survey participants in Wilson’s Canadian study who received three days of bereavement time said they either took paid vacation time or sick leave time to supplement their bereavement leave, or asked for a few extra days off either paid or unpaid leave.
Although five business days of bereavement leave may be adequate to address the initial impact of a loss, Wilson’s research paper notes that two years is widely considered the timeframe for grief recovery. There may be things that pop up that trigger memories of a lost one or anniversary dates of their birth or death that are remembered.
Severe bereavement grief may include depression, other mental illnesses, physical illnesses and even potentially premature death.
In extreme bereavement cases, employees may seek short- or long-term disability after their bereavement leave is exhausted or ask for job accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Labor law attorneys, however, said such action is rare among employees who are bereaved.
“There’s a misconception that when a loss happens in our personal lives it somehow doesn’t impact us when we go back to work,” said Ed Owens, a certification trainer and director of advanced grief recovery method training and programs at The Grief Recovery Institute. “All of us are deeply impacted by the losses we experience and after three or four days of bereavement leave we’re supposed to be all better and recovered from the emotional impact of this loss. It simply is not the way it works as human beings.”
Bereavement Leave Legislative Changes
The U.S. stands out across the globe as the only industrialized nation that does not require employers to offer their employees bereavement leave, either paid or unpaid.
“When we were doing our paper, we looked at countries around the world to see if they give bereavement leave and it was shocking because the U.S. has nothing. Canada has three days and most other countries have three days but the U.S. nothing,” Wilson said.
That may change — eventually. President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, a $1.75 trillion federally funded social, economic and climate change package, includes three days of paid bereavement leave to workers in the U.S. Although it narrowly passed in the House of Representatives in November, it’s facing trouble in the Senate and missed a deadline to be voted on this year, CNN reports. President Biden, however, said he plans to continue pushing to get it to a Senate vote as early as possible.
Oregon is currently the only state that requires private employers to offer bereavement leave. The 2014 state law requires companies with 25 or more employees to abide by the Oregon Family Leave Act (OFLA) and offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave, which employees can offset by using accrued paid time off. Under OFLA, employees are entitled to two weeks of bereavement leave. Paid family leave, however, will be offered in 2023 under the act.
Maryland this year expanded its Maryland Flexible Leave Act to include bereavement leave. Employers with 15 or more employees are required to allow their workers to use any of their accrued paid time off for job-protected bereavement leave.
Illinois passed the Child Bereavement Leave Act in 2016. Under the act, employers with 50 or more employees must allow workers to take up to 2 weeks of unpaid bereavement leave following the death of a child.
California has attempted to pass a bereavement leave law on four separate occasions since 2007, but it hasn’t worked out. The most recent effort introduced in late 2020 was AB 95. Under the proposed bill, companies with 25 or more employees would have been required to allow employees up to 10 business days of unpaid leave if an employee’s spouse, child, parent, parent-in-law, sibling, grandparent, grandchild or domestic partner died. Companies with less than 25 employees would have needed to provide three business days of unpaid leave.
Opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce and 50 other chambers and business organizations and associations fought AB 95, labeling it a “job killer.”
The organizations feared AB 95 would open them up to new avenues of employee litigation and impose a new mandate that they say could be served as it is now with voluntary bereavement policies.
Paid sick leave and paid family leave have been at the forefront of a lot of legislation introduced, especially since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic that has resulted in 860,316 deaths in the U.S. and 69.3 million cases as of January 2022, according to the New York Times.
In addition to the pandemic, society’s changing expectations are also driving new bereavement laws and company policies around bereavement leave.
Changes in the Scope of Bereavement Leave
Bereavement leave policies are seeing an expansion in the scope of those it covers, Hardesty said.
“It’s no longer just the immediate family. It could be an aunt who took care of the employee, for example,” Hardesty said. “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.”
Meta, for example, included foster children in its 2017 bereavement leave revision. Foster children are part of Meta’s definition of its extended family category, which includes parent, sibling, grandparent, great grandparent, and grandchild. Immediate family members are spouse, domestic partner and child at Meta.
“More companies are expanding their definitions of family, which extends to how they are modifying bereavement policies,” Reeves told Built In, adding, “As an employer, it’s important to design benefit policies around employees’ lives and the ways that they may define their families and loved ones as well as overall employee wellness. Providing a thoughtful bereavement leave policy is just one of the important ways an employer can show compassion and support as employees face some of life’s most challenging circumstances.”
How Pregnancy Loss Factors Into Bereavement Leave Policies
“More companies appear to be including miscarriage in their bereavement leave policy,” Reeves said.
Reddit added pregnancy loss to its bereavement policy in 2019. If an employee or their partner suffers a pregnancy loss, the San Francisco-based social media company provides eight-and-a-half weeks of paid time off, in addition to any pregnancy disability leave designated by a physician between zero to 17.4 weeks.
Pinterest is planning to add a pregnancy loss leave of up to four paid weeks beginning in January for parents who experience a miscarriage at any point during their pregnancy, the San Francisco-based company announced in early December.
Meta covers pregnancy loss after 20 weeks in its bereavement leave policy as a loss of a child.
Roughly 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies result in a miscarriage, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, the medical center noted that figure is likely to be much higher given many miscarriages occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy — even before a woman knows she is pregnant.
Not only are companies adding pregnancy loss to their bereavement leave policies but some government agencies are taking this topic up too.
New Zealand’s parliament unanimously approved a pregnancy loss bill in March that allows women and their partners to take up to three days of paid bereavement leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth.
In the U.S., Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Senator Tammy Duckworth introduced their Support Through Loss Act in July. Under the federal bill, employers would be required to provide up to three days of paid leave to workers following a pregnancy loss, an unsuccessful assisted reproductive technology procedure, a failed adoption arrangement, a failed surrogacy arrangement or a medical diagnosis or event that impacts pregnancy or fertility.
Although the bill was introduced in the House and Senate, it has yet to move out of committee.
In mid-September Pittsburgh became the first U.S. government entity to approve a pregnancy loss bereavement policy. The policy provides for three paid days of bereavement leave if a city employee or their partner suffers a pregnancy loss due to a miscarriage, stillbirth or termination.
Pittsburgh Councilman Bobby Wilson drove the legislation, after hearing about New Zealand’s pregnancy loss law.
“Frankly, it is just a start. If you are expecting, three days is not remotely enough time to even comprehend what you’ve lost, much less begin to grieve your loss, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
“I looked into it and discovered we did not have this coverage at the city, or at any other level of government in Pennsylvania or the United States. It seemed like a simple, obvious, and immensely overdue issue to fix,” Wilson told Built In.
Under the city’s pregnancy loss bereavement leave, city workers will receive the same number of bereavement leave days given to those city workers who have lost a parent, sibling or child.
“Frankly, it is just a start. If you are expecting, three days is not remotely enough time to even comprehend what you’ve lost, much less begin to grieve your loss, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Wilson said.
Pittsburgh is considering the option to pass a similar law for employers in the city. State law, however, may pose some obstacles in making that happen, said Wilson.
New Zealand’s pregnancy loss bill also caught the attention of Michelle Rodriguez, senior policy advisor with the office of commissioner Mingus Mapps of Portland.
“As a female and mother of two kids, it got me thinking about what it must look like for working women when you suffer a pregnancy loss. It takes a lot out of you both physically and psychologically along the spectrum for many people,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to see how we could include it since we were already thinking about doing an update to the policy.”
Portland’s bereavement policy update, amended in October, allows three to five days of paid leave if a city employee or their partner has a miscarriage, stillbirth, or any other pregnancy loss whether voluntary or deemed medically necessary. This update matches the city’s overall bereavement leave policy. Before Portland legislators consider a law that affects all employers, they are discussing a plan to gather data on how the city’s policy is working, Rodriguez said.
Over in Boston, the city council approved an amendment to the city’s paid leave ordinance in September, allowing 12 weeks of paid leave for pregnancy loss, including abortions, according to a report in the New Boston Post.
In Waterloo, Iowa, legislators passed a resolution in October for pregnancy loss to be added to the city’s existing bereavement leave policy.
“A lot of times when we cities pass laws, it becomes a topic of conversation,” SHRM’s Hardesty said. “Employers looking to retain employees look to what’s important to them. Expecting someone to come back to work after a loss can be disengaging. Offering pregnancy loss bereavement is something that could be important to employers, especially if they are trying to be competitive in the market.”
Is Pet Bereavement Leave Catching On?
Pets are part of the family and they’ve started to become part of office life, too. It might’ve started with Take Your Dog to Work Day with 300 companies participating in the inaugural event by the Pet Sitters International in 1999. And now, roughly half of C-suite executives plan to let employees return to work with pets in tow, according to a survey conducted by Banfield Pet Hospital.
Employers have recognized the strong bond between their workers and pets — trending now is a benefit that offers employees pet insurance. Nearly 47 percent of employers surveyed by insurance brokerage company Willis Towers Watson offer pet insurance, and that figure is expected to rise to 69 percent in 2022. Going one step further, BrewDog, a craft brewery and bar, was one of the first companies to offer puppy parental leave. There are also other employers like Mparticle and BitSol Solutions that offer pawternity leave, reports Business Insider.
Companies are also offering pet bereavement leave, such as Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants in San Francisco and pet insurance company Trupanion in Seattle. And according to Banfield’s survey, 37 percent of employers offer pet bereavement leave.
Banfield’s Employer Survey Results:
- 45 percent offer veterinary care financial support
- 37 percent offer pet bereavement leave
- 41 percent offer pawternity leave for new pet owners
- 40 percent offer paid time off for vet visits
Columbia introduced a bill this fall that could require its employers to offer grieving pet owners two paid days of pet bereavement leave, The New York Post reports. The bill, if passed, has the potential to catch the attention of other governments. Currently, no state in the U.S. carries a pet bereavement law, said Fiona Ong, an employment and labor attorney with Shawe Rosenthal in Baltimore, Maryland.
Employers, however, may be increasingly interested to add this benefit as a means to attract employees as the unemployment rate falls to its lowest level since February 2020 and the number of employees with pets has surged as homebound workers during the pandemic have adopted pets, Ong said.
“I think there’s probably more appetite to offer it now than there was five years ago,” she said. “It’s not necessarily just those in the tech industry or the pet industry that are likely to do it. I do think that it may be something that creative employers are thinking about.”
Offering pet bereavement leave, however, comes with challenges.
Employees who have never owned a pet before may not understand the depth of the relationship between a pet owner and their pet and become resentful when their coworker receives pet bereavement leave.
“Tension in the workplace may be exacerbated because some people may think that somebody is getting extra benefits,” Ong said.
How do you prove that the loss of your pet fish is just as impactful as losing your pet dog? Or, how do you prove your pet has passed? These are questions employers need to ponder before creating a pet bereavement policy, Ong warns.
Roughly 30 percent of employees whose pet died felt grief and sadness for six months but did not need counseling or psychological treatment, but 20 percent did and between 5 to 12 percent suffered major pathological disruption like severe clinical depression, according to studies published in the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic and also Anthrozoos.
“What I’ve seen is more and more people are having furbabies. They’re choosing not to have children so they have a dog or a cat instead. They still have a nurturing need, so they have furbabies. They’re accepting pets as part of their family instead of thinking of them as pets,” Julie Ann Luiz Adrian, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s department of Pharmacy Practice and co-author of the study.
Much has been written about Millennials and Gen Z adults shying away from wanting children, fearing the future and raising children amidst climate change.
“What I’ve seen is more and more people are having furbabies. They’re choosing not to have children so they have a dog or a cat instead. They still have a nurturing need, so they have furbabies. They’re accepting pets as part of their family instead of thinking of them as pets.”
“I think pet bereavement leave is something that every company should consider offering because of this age we’re living in where people are having pets as family members,” said Adrian, a veterinarian who has an engaged interest in veterinary pharmacy and complicated grief involving the death of pets and animals.
Despite more than half of the study’s participants feeling some level of grief following the death of their pet, Adrian, noted only a small percentage were affected with debilitating major pathological grief.
Kevin Ringstaff, founder and CEO of PetCloud, a grief counseling service in San Francisco, said the pandemic and remote work has made pet bereavement leave even more important.
“During the pandemic, we spend every single day at home with our pets. When we lose them and are still having to work from home, the only thing we’re thinking about is that absence. It absolutely affects our ability to concentrate,” said Ringstaff, who is also a certified pet chaplain.
Employees who find it difficult to physically show up at the office without crying from grief, or face challenges concentrating and their work suffers have been fired, or in other cases quit when they feel their manager does not support them or is dismissive regarding the loss of their pet, Ringstaff said of some people he’s counseled.
He added giving a pet bereavement leave of a day or two would be a good return on investment for employers because it can assist the person during their immediate acute grief.
Future of Bereavement Leave
With nearly 90 percent of employers currently offering paid bereavement leave, there is not likely to be a major spike in the next five years, Bohr predicts.
“I don’t see a lot of laws being pushed out there, because there’s already so much buy-in by employers and they’re already proving a benefit in so many ways,” she said. “I think the percentage will increase gradually, but I don’t think we’ll see 100 percent.”
The soaring number of people falling sick from the virus last year and a spike in deaths prompted government agencies and employers to take a close review of their sick time, employment and labor attorneys said.
“In states where they didn’t have sick leave, that’s going to be the first priority. And then in states where there was sick leave, bereavement leave is sort of the next step.”
And sick leave policies serve as the stepping stone to bereavement policies.
“In states where they didn’t have sick leave, that’s going to be the first priority. And then in states where there was sick leave, bereavement leave is sort of the next step,” Ong said. “I would find it somewhat interesting if a state were to jump straight into bereavement leave and skip over sick leave, because more employees are going to need the sick leave than they will need the bereavement leave.”
For Matt Hensley, co-owner and director of technology for small web development company Eclipse Media Solutions in Portland, Oregon, he believes a broader approach to paid time off may be in the future for dealing with bereavement leave.
Rather than have multiple buckets of paid time off for sick leave, vacation time, bereavement leave, he envisions one large bucket of paid time off and flexibility for employees to use it as they wish.
Currently, the six-person Eclipse team is allotted three paid days off for bereavement leave. But if an employee wanted to take that time because of a pregnancy loss or the passing of a pet, Hensley said he doesn’t envision being too nitpicky about the bucket of time it is pulled from.
What Employers and Coworkers Can Do for Bereaved Employees
One of the best steps an employer and coworkers can take is to acknowledge the employee’s loss and give your condolences, rather than ignore the elephant in the room for fear of saying something will upset the team member, grief counselors said.
3 Tips to 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.
“Anytime a supervisor or manager is attentive and sympathetic to what their employees are going through and can do things that are within their power and make the environment easier for them, that’s always a great thing,” Owens said.