- In the US, there is no law granting workers the right to paid time off to attend a loved one’s funeral or process the trauma of losing a family member.
- Bereavement leave is up to the discretion of employers.
- Most American workers receive only three days to grieve the loss of a close family member; some receive none.
- But grief takes more than a handful of days to contend with.
- Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has taken the lives of 100,000 Americans.
- If you’re struggling with depression or grief, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Kristy’s world shattered the moment she heard a loud thump in the bathroom.
He’d been her partner for eight years. The father of her two children. The love of her life. A suspected opioid addiction took him on May 2. Racing from the living room at the sound of that collapse, Kristy found his unresponsive body blocking the bathroom door. Paramedics pronounced him dead when they arrived.
That was the first blow.
The second came later that day when she let her job know what had happened.
Kristy, who confirmed her identity with us, asked Business Insider to omit her last name for fear of potential consequences from her employer, a halfway house for women. She says her bosses told her they'd grant her five days of bereavement leave.
Five days to call family members; to obtain a death certificate; to handle legal and financial affairs; to make funeral arrangements. And somewhere in those five days, to actually grieve before heading back to work.
"Five days?" Kristy told us. "It's insane to me. You don't even get to grieve the first few days. You're in shock."
But five full days is what passes as generous grieving time in the America of 2020. The average HR policy grants between one to five days of bereavement; the most popular policy is three days. [Full disclosure: At Insider, it's five days as part of non-medical leave, with the option to add an additional consecutive five paid days of personal leave to it. After that, additional unpaid time off can be taken.]
Kristy's story is a personal tragedy that exposes a national catastrophe: People are being robbed of the time to properly experience their emotions.
The pandemic has claimed 100,000 American lives. Those they left behind must mourn, or try to mourn, their loved ones.
Depending on their benefits package.
A policy that's 'woefully behind'
While avoided in American culture, death is a part of life.
The opioid crisis, the coronavirus pandemic: When these tragedies erupt, they lay bare just how ever-present death, and its attendant grieving, are in our lives.
As hundreds of news reports have made clear, the pandemic has exposed the myriad ways that having healthcare tied to our jobs creates personal and financial risk for people. Mental healthcare is less appreciated than physiological healthcare, and bereavement under-discussed even among mental health advocates.
A 2016 study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found most employers offer four days for the death of a spouse or child, three days for the death of other family members like a sibling or parent, one day for an extended family member like an aunt or cousin, and zero days for a friend or colleague.
Policies are even murkier for significant others who don't share the bonds formalized by blood or marriage. Kristy and her partner were not married, so her employer should have given her one day off. She said she received the full five days only because her manager chose to make an exception.
Lisa Murfield, a human resources manager at the law firm Hill Ward Henderson, has been in the industry for more than 20 years.
Murfield became an advocate for more extensive bereavement policies after her 22-year-old stepson, Caleb, died by suicide in 2007. She was given three days of bereavement leave by a previous employer.
"Most of the organizations I've worked for, it's three days of leave when you lose an immediate family member and one day for an extended family member. And that is pretty common," said Murfield, who co-wrote a book on why employers should extend bereavement leave titled "The ROI of Compassion," along with her husband, Loren.
"We are woefully behind in paying attention to bereavement, unfortunately," she said.
A history of grief in America
In the 1970s, sociologists and psychologists became more interested in grief. The public discussions they started spurred change within companies, according to the book "Death and Social Policy in Challenging Times."
Still, many employers only allotted enough time for an employee to arrange and attend a loved one's funeral. This hasn't changed much, HR experts tell Business Insider. In fact, the US federal government still refers to bereavement leave simply as "funeral leave."
Deadly, high-profile events like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, encouraged more employers to adopt leave policies. However, the conversation still revolves around attending a funeral, as opposed to processing the grief and trauma that accompanies death.
As with other benefits, bereavement leave is wholly in the hands of companies. Because there is no federal policy on the issue, employers can choose not to give any time off to an employee, even if that employee only requests one day to attend a loved one's funeral.
And let's not forget part-time workers and "gig economy" workers.
As of 2012, only 60% of private-sector workers had paid bereavement leave, per a report from the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Part-time workers fared even worse: 29% received paid leave, compared with 71% of full-time employees.
Only one state, Oregon, has passed a law requiring employers to provide bereavement leave. In 2018, New York State legislature passed a bill that would guarantee workers up to 12 weeks of paid bereavement leave, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed it. Though he agreed with "the spirit of the bill," he cited concerns over expected employee contributions (payroll deductions) while on leave, adding that the law would hurt low-wage workers.
California is currently considering a bill that would require employers to provide employees with "up to 10 business days of unpaid bereavement leave."
However, the US isn't the only industrialized nation lagging in its response to grief. France allows three days of paid bereavement leave for a spouse, partner, parents, siblings, or in-laws, and five days for a deceased child. Australia grants two days of paid leave to employees whose immediate family member has died. Brazil also allows for two days of paid leave.
Giving employees the mourning time they deserve
Counting her time off and weekends, Kristy returned to work nine days after her partner's death.
"I was nowhere near ready," she said. "I'm still not ready." While interviewing with Business Insider, she mentioned she was supposed to be at work but had called in late.
Terri Daniel, a clinical chaplain, certified trauma professional, and end-of-life educator, says grief takes time to process, and that it's not something you just "recover" from. It takes months, sometimes years of work.
"Coping is what we do when something is unbearable and we want to make it go away. Yes, grief can feel that way, but it also invites - demands - that we work with it in order to heal," Daniel previously wrote for Business Insider.
For some, grief is a lifelong process.
Psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow told Thrive Global: "The deeper the love, the bigger the grief, and it may never end. I think there are instances where one basically will take grief to their own grave."
Can we really expect people to get back to work after one to five days?
Experts we talked to said that forcing employees to return to work before they're ready isn't just damaging to their mental health - it can also can lead to high costs in lost productivity for companies. In 2002, researchers attempted to quantify the impact of grief on the US economy, finding that lost productivity and increased rates of absenteeism among grieving workers cost the country more than $75 billion each year.
Murfield encourages employees to talk with their HR executives about extending their company's policies, and for HR executives to start conversations with members of the C-suite. Employees should be able to use their time to grieve whenever they want over the next 12 months, she said, as some employees prefer to jump back into work as a distraction.
It's also not a policy that employees typically abuse, Murfield added. In fact, having a generous bereavement policy increases employee loyalty.
"It's a question of, what do you want your company to be known for?" she said.
But companies may be beginning to recognize the importance of offering enough bereavement leave. Barbara Holland, a SHRM Knowledge Advisor who's worked in human resources for three decades, said there's been a shift over the past 10 years where companies are slowly starting to realize that employees need to have time not only to simply attend a funeral, but to go through the full process of grieving.
But still, more needs to be done: "I don't think three days is enough," she said.
Holland suggests that along with boosting more paid leave days, employers should look into offering more unpaid time off, flexible work hours, and "leave donations," where colleagues can donate their vacation days to a grieving employee.
The conversation around grief is getting louder
Employees may be open to the idea of more options. The number of Google searches for the words "grief" and "bereavement leave" have steadily increased over the past few years, indicating more interest in the topic. That search saw a noticeable spike between February and April of this year - just as the coronavirus and ensuing lockdown laid waste to America's workforce.
The question is, will business leaders and policymakers listen? Some corporate leaders have been leading the charge for more bereavement leave. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO and co-author of "Option B," began speaking openly about grief and the need for more paid bereavement leave after the 2015 death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, who was the CEO of SurveyMonkey. In fact, Business Insider sat down with her last month and spoke about the need for bereavement leave in the US. Because of her advocacy, Facebook extended its policy from 10 days for an immediate family member to 20 days.
"I hope more companies will join us and others making similar moves, because America's families deserve support," she wrote in a Facebook post. Working with Sandberg, MasterCard and SurveyMonkey adopted similar policies. Some companies, like Google, evaluate bereavement leave on a case-by-case basis because some employees "need more time off than others, depending on the specifics of their situation," a spokesperson told Business Insider.
"People should be able both to work and be there for their families," Sandberg added. "No one should face this trade-off."
For Kristy, that trade-off is taking a toll. Her company is offering her a flexible work schedule, but she has to make up the hours she misses during that same week. If she doesn't, she says she could get penalized.
The now-single mother is considering taking disability leave for mental health problems. Having missed multiple hours of work, she doesn't know when, or how, she's going to make them up.
"It's causing me so much stress right now," she said. "I don't know what I'm going to do."