When Namitha Jacob's parents immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1988, they were the first of her family to make the trek across the ocean. As her extended family received their visas and took up their own immigration journeys, her parents' home was a kind of base camp as others in the family got their feet on the ground. She grew up surrounded by uncles, aunts and cousins just as much as siblings and parents.
"Having a home with multiple families inside of it … there wasn't a stark differentiation between uncle versus dad versus cousin," Jacob told HR Dive. "We even call our cousins, 'cousin-brothers,' 'cousin-sisters.'"
When one of her uncles passed away recently, Jacob requested to use 2.5 days of her bereavement leave. Having developed such close bonds with her uncle, she was taken aback after being presented with a list of who constitutes "close family" worthy of that leave. She took to LinkedIn to express her frustration with such a policy; the resulting post went viral and ignited a discussion among HR professionals, employers and workers.
HR Dive spoke to some consultants in the HR field who said a more inclusive and compassionate bereavement leave policy is overdue in the workplace and explained how to approach some of the challenges employers brought up in the LinkedIn discussion.
The three-day standard
Tamara Rasberry, owner of HR consulting firm Rasberry Consulting, has consulted with a number of companies on how to craft a bereavement leave policy. Almost always, she said, companies "started out having a three-day bereavement policy … three days, for some reason, is the general number most places use."
Rasberry's experience is backed up by research. A 2019 survey of nearly 200 organizations conducted by insurance broker NFP and Helios HR found that 90% of respondents offered some type of bereavement leave, with 68% offering one to three days for immediate family members and 45% offering one to three days for non-immediate family members. Twenty percent offered leave for non-family members.
Convincing companies to broaden their policy is a "struggle," Rasberry said. "Senior leadership teams tend to, in my experience, want to give you the least amount of something that they can give you while also trying to seem halfway compassionate."
Partially, the policy comes from a larger workplace issue — what Rasberry said is a lingering desire for control from company leaders. "It's like, 'If I don't know where you are and what you're doing every second of the day, I feel like you're not being productive and I'm wasting my money paying you.' That is such an outmoded mindset, but it impacts so many aspects of work."
Savannah Bishop has been both a business owner and operations manager, and, more recently, a freelance remote business consultant and analyst. For her, when she shaped a policy for her own company and now in consulting with others, a personal experience with grief weighs heavily on her mind.
I found my father's body at the age of 17. And I'm comfortable sharing that because what I went through is not unique.
Remote business consultant and analyst
"I found my father's body at the age of 17," she said. "And I'm comfortable sharing that because what I went through is not unique. Granted, not everyone has that exact experience, of course, but pretty much everybody at some point in their life is going to have a kind of loss that pretty much shapes them from here on out … So, I always think of that and I think about how long it took me to feel mentally able to perform my job duties again."
Bishop believes there needs to be a "paradigm shift" in the way bereavement leave is handled. "You have to have compassion first if you want to keep and retain top talent as a company," she said.
No controlling grief
Like Bishop, Lisa Keefauver, founder and CEO of bereavement consulting company Reimagining Grief and host of the podcast Grief is a Sneaky Bitch, had a personal experience with grief that not only informs her consultation, but caused her to become an expert on the topic.
Keefauver was 40 when her husband died in 2011, after a yearlong period of "misdiagnosis and medical malpractice," leaving her the sole surviving parent of a 7-year-old daughter. At the time, she was clinical director of a large nonprofit. Before her husband's death, Keefauver took two weeks off to be with him in the hospital as they struggled to understand what was happening. But shortly after he passed away, she was called back into work.
It wasn't a leave violation that caused her employer to reach out, she said; rather, a number of senior leaders left around that time, creating a staffing shortage. "I felt a lot of pressure," she said. Would she lose her job if she didn't return as expected? She had a daughter to support and, while still adjusting to the death of her husband, had become the sole source of family income.
While Keefauver had a social work and therapy background and likely more exposure to the grieving process than the average worker, a major part of the bereavement issue is that "socially, culturally, we don't talk about the realities of grief," she said. The cultural touchstones for grief tend to be limited to crying and feeling sad for a while. "They don't tell you that you can't remember things, that your short-term and long-term memory go haywire. They don't tell you have inflammation and sometimes physical ailments, because your immune system gets compromised. They don't tell you that you get angry and anxious, that you either want to sleep all the time or can't sleep at all … I was experiencing all of those things."
Given the increased discussion around mental health in the HR space — as well as other benefits that support less-discussed aspects of workers' lives, like elder care and breastfeeding — now may be the right time to consider updating company bereavement leave policies to ensure they reflect the reality of grieving.
That reality? It's messy. It's nonlinear. Grievers often describe the mourning process coming in "waves." "I think culturally, we all think that in a week, two weeks, three weeks, we'll be fine, but ... those responses last for a long time and they look different in every person," Keefauver said.
Building the right policy
Restricting a leave period to one to three days for bereavement simply doesn't reflect the reality of the grieving process or respect the needs of the employee, interviewees told HR Dive. Bishop recommends 20 days. Keefauver suggests two to three weeks of paid leave and stresses the importance of allowing those days to be nonconsecutive, both for the unpredictability of the mourning process and due to the requirements that follow a death.
"The funeral might not be for a week or two weeks," Keefauver said. "[The worker] might then have to go stand in line at the social security office to get the death certificate, or the disability [certificate], and that might be an appointment that's three weeks out."
Certain holidays or anniversaries might also hit the worker hard after a loss — for example, the loved one's birthday. A longer, nonlinear policy would allow a worker to use bereavement leave to honor the person who is lost for such a day, even if it's months after the death.
Rasberry said a friend of hers developed a policy that turned out to be her favorite approach. "Basically, there was no cap on the time," she said. "It was, 'Let us know what you need. Let us know how we can support you. We trust your judgment as to what you need for your grief.' There were no hard limitations. When she showed me that, I was like, 'Oh my goodness, I wish every company would do this.'"
All sources also recommended not limiting bereavement leave to immediate family, or even keeping a list for whom the leave is "allowed."
The workplace making judgments about who is appropriate for an employee to mourn can result in a dismissive attitude that harms the employee, Keefauver said.
"The loss of a best friend you may have lived with for many years, could be, for some people, more of a profound loss [than immediate family]," Bishop said. Rasberry said she'd recently used bereavement leave to mourn the loss of a friend, and while her company allowed it, "there are definitely companies that would not have let that happen … that would have been like, 'If they're not your blood relatives, we don't know what to tell you.'"
Placing limitations on who can be mourned and for how long also creates a DEI problem. As Jacob's experience illustrates — and as her post describes — limiting mourning to immediate, nuclear family adheres to a fundamentally Western notion of family, excluding those for whom family has a broader cultural meaning. (In addition, plenty of workers from a "traditional Western" background also have a nontraditional family makeup, or exceptionally close bonds with extended family.)
Certain religious and cultural backgrounds also come with specific mourning rituals or customs, Rasberry noted, such as the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva. "If they don't have enough time to be able to [fulfill those customs], then either they're having to dip into their vacation time or their unpaid leave, things like that," Rasberry said. "And again, this is not a vacation."
Beyond encouraging companies to loosen time and relation restraints, Keefauver works with them overall to create a "grief-smart culture" that emphasizes empathy and is ready for when the inevitable happens.
Organizations can allow grievers to ease back into the workplace and distribute their responsibilities, rather than let their work pile up — a problem with bereavement leave that all sources noted. Employers should respect time off, not messaging or emailing workers on leave and creating an expectation they keep one eye on their work, the experts suggested; leaders should make an example of themselves, using their own bereavement leave when needed. If possible, Keefauver recommends employers also cover at least a few sessions of grief counseling.
Creating a grief-smart culture can be important even beyond improving the work environment; "You're more likely to have employee retention, you're more likely to have productivity return well when people feel satisfied and taken care of," Keefauver said.
While more flexible bereavement leave sounds nice, the elephant in the room — or at least in the LinkedIn discussion thread — was the nagging question: What about employees who take advantage of such a generous policy?
There's a real, in my opinion, concerning pathological assumption by people who say that. Basically, what they're saying is they believe fundamentally people are dishonest.
Founder, Reimagining Grief
None of the sources HR Dive talked to had patience for that line of critique. One notion came up consistently: If a company employs people they believe or suspect are abusing bereavement policy, there's a bigger problem at hand.
"That makes me crazy," Keefauver said. "There's a real, in my opinion, concerning pathological assumption by people who say that. Basically, what they're saying is they believe fundamentally people are dishonest. That's what I hear when I hear that." While the chance that an employee is abusing the policy might happen on the rare occasion, she said, a strict policy based on mistrust is more damaging overall.
Rasberry, who embraces a "people first" approach to HR, said the same. "Never create policies that punish everyone to punish one person. If you have one person that you know is the issue, deal with that person. Don't create a policy that's going to impact your entire staff because you believe one person has an issue," she said.
"If you want to attract true talented individuals, you have to be willing to give a little bit," said Bishop. "And the more you're able to treat your employees with some sense of trust and foster them to be able to feel comfortable in their workplace ... you're going to reduce the risk of people who are going to take advantage."
Jacob, who approached her employer with a request to update her workplace's bereavement policy to be more inclusive, ultimately succeeded in creating a change. "Actually, they went above and beyond," she said. "They actually hired a DEI consultant to come in and review all of their HR policies and they're going to audit the policies on a yearly basis to make sure the policies still serve the people that they're meant to."
"What's been overwhelming is the amount of people responding to say, 'I couldn't take the leap and I didn't speak up,'" Jacob said. "And so, I'm really glad that this spurred some inspiration for people to actually speak up."
This story has been updated to clarify the year of Jacob's parents' immigration as well as Rasberry's title.