Why We Need More Bereavement Leave
My father died on a Friday. I made his funeral arrangements over the weekend and went to work on Monday. My company offers three days of bereavement leave for a family member. The funeral was planned for Wednesday, so I took that day off, of course, plus Tuesday and Thursday. Tuesday I took my daughter shopping for funeral clothes. Thursday I spent time with my sisters, one of whom lives out of state. I went back to work on Friday and was handed a big assignment, due the same day.
I’m management, executive team actually, and have been for years. So I understand the needs of a business, especially small businesses, as they tend to be my employers of choice. I know that benefits must be offered equally and that they come at a cost to a company. I know that the work needs to get done, no matter what’s happening outside of the office. I realize that sometimes I am the only one who can complete specific tasks. I get it.
I’ve been a caregiver – to two parents and an elderly aunt. And you know what else I get? I get that family is more important than work. That being present at someone’s death affects you profoundly. That humans need time and space to process events and feel feelings and connect with the people they love.
Three days is the average length of bereavement leave in the United States and it’s not enough.
It’s not enough because three days gives you just enough time to plan and attend services, but not to actually process your loss.
It’s not enough because when someone dies, you must complete a ridiculous amount of paperwork usually preceded by an absurd number of phone calls that typically begin with a nonsensically long exchange with an automated attendant. Case in point: it took 45 minutes for me to tell Social Security that my father had passed. And guess what? I made that call on company time because most death-related business has to happen during business hours. At least this time around I have a private office; when my mother died I was in an open office setting. There is no way the person who made open offices popular had elderly parents, or children, or a life, for that matter.
It’s not enough because a grieving, distracted employee doesn’t do her best work. Yes, absenteeism costs a company money, but what’s the cost of presenteeism? I completed that big assignment the day I returned from my bereavement leave, but if you think it was my best work, you never had parents. Three weeks later, I can’t even tell you which client it was for – that’s how much I cared about my work product that day.
It’s not enough because the average American workplace is not prepared to handle death. Google “what to do when a coworker loses a parent” and you’ll see lots of comments about saying nothing and giving the employee privacy. Sure, privacy is a good thing but I have to tell you, it’s downright weird when two days after burying the person who raised you, you get a Slack message from a coworker who wants to “touch base” on a “deliverable” and who hasn’t acknowledged, and never will, that you have experienced a major life moment.
Listen, I understand the awkwardness. I have been the employee who didn’t know what to say or how to act. And that’s the point. The work world doesn’t make space for the real world, so why not give people more space to deal with their lives outside of the office?
For years I have viewed work/life situations from the work perspective. I now believe that was the wrong approach. To get the most of people, and to give the most to people – our employees, our customers, and ourselves – we need to view work/life situations from a work and a life perspective. And that means we all need more time for life.