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As workplace changes, some firms re-examine bereavement policies

Russ Willis

Kim Thomas

One of the most difficult passages in life is losing a family member. While most companies give employees three days off to grieve the loss of an immediate family member, recently Facebook decided to offer up to 20 days paid leave to grieve the loss of an immediate family member and up to 10 days leave after the death of an extended family member.

The Facebook policy doubles the amount of time employees used to receive for bereavement. Will other companies take notice and increase bereavement benefits from the traditional three days leave?

“I do think in general that companies are looking at something more than just three days paid leave,” said Russ Willis, JD, a professor of practice at the University of Southern Mississippi Department of Management and International Business. “Most people would recognize three days to get through the death of a family member isn’t enough time. Say you took off two weeks for the death of a spouse or a child, and were not paid. For a lot of people, that is tough. When they are grieving and then didn’t get paid for that time off, it is a double-edged problem. There is the emotional part of grieving, and then a financial penalty on top of it.”

Willis said there is no law that requires companies provide bereavement leave. It is totally up the company.

“Policies are all over the board in terms of how much time an employee is allowed to be off and get paid from their particular company,” Willis said. “Three days is the traditional amount of bereavement time, but I do think you will see a trend to increase that.”

When an employee loses a parent, the employee may need to help the surviving parent get through it. And sometimes there are time-consuming tasks like dealing with an estate or helping a surviving parent move into assisted living or a nursing home.

Willis said the amount of help provided by a company can depend on how flexible the company can be. If an employee can work remotely, that might be a way to help them through the transition.

“Obviously, technology has allowed this to become a much more feasible option for companies,” he said. “More companies are doing things like allowing someone who has lost a close family member to go back to work, but part time for a period of time. Or, they are allowed to work from home for a couple months. I do think you see more companies becoming more flexible around that issue.”

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to grieving. Before he started teaching at USM, Willis was director of human resources at Ole Miss. What he saw was that not everyone processes grief in the same way.

“For some people, getting back to the normal routine is what is best for them,” Willis said. “They are just ready to get back to their normal lives. Getting back to work can be a way to push the death out of your mind so you aren’t obsessing about it all the time. Each person has to figure out what is best for them.”

In addition to paid leave, there are other ways businesses can help. Willis said what is becoming more and more common is an employee assistance program like the one offered at Southern Miss through a contract with a third party. Employees are provided with a certain number of visits to a licensed counselor. In addition to the loss of a loved one, employees also can benefit from counseling for marital problems, alcohol and drug additions, depression and other issues.

“I do think companies are seeing the value of those kinds of arrangements because they realize employees who are very distracted by personal problems are not productive,” Willis said. “I’m a big proponent of employee assistance programs. This something in the 21st century that companies need to offer to employees. In the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a cultural shift. More companies do see the value of employee assistance programs. They see a bottom line value proposition knowing that if their employees are mentally healthy, that is going to impact the company’s bottom line positively. “

At Mississippi State University, employees are offered three days bereavement through their major medical leave benefits, said Kim Thomas, associate director of human resources at MSU.

“In addition to that, they can take extra time based on the hours they have accrued in vacation or major medical leave,” Thomas said. “They can be approved to take extra leave as needed. We actually have a pretty broad scope of individuals who qualify for this leave. Even part-time employees are eligible for it if they are employed half time or higher.”

Thomas said that the definition for a death in the immediate family is broad and can include not just parents, grandparents, siblings and children, but also step children, step parents, and in laws.

Thomas said it is part of the university’s work-life balance approach to help employees deal with one of the most stressful events that someone can experience.

“There is a point in everyone’s life when we will experience this loss,” Thomas said. “I do think it is an important leave category. Employees need that work-life balance, and need to feel supported in their work environment. That time off allows them to recover and be emotionally prepared to return to work because they have had time to grieve and heal.”

Thomas said extra leave time is especially helpful when someone has to travel to another area of the country when they experience a death in the family.


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About Becky Gillette

One comment

  1. I see no reason for employers to give out extra unearned paid leave for bereavement, though certainly it is their choice. But employees should be easily allowed to take “earned” vacation or sick leave with pay, or leave without pay, for such occurrences. Employees should be responsible enough to keep a few days saved up for that instead of expecting employers to kick in extra days, and employers should allow employees to retain some saved earned leave days to “roll over” into subsequent years for such purposes.

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