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How Should HR Support Bereaved Employees?
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Benefits Administration

What is Bereavement?

One-Minute Takeaway

  • Grief and bereavement are similar, but not identical.
  • More and more states are implementing bereavement leave laws.
  • To support bereaved employees, managers need training in soft skills.

Loss is one of life’s biggest challenges. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a relationship, a home, or even the onset of an illness, everyone goes through bereavement. HR plays a crucial role in supporting employees through those times.

This is more than a compliance issue – it’s an essential part of workplace culture. Offering practical, meaningful assistance to bereaved employees makes a world of difference. By supporting them and their families, you can build trust and accountability with your whole team. Ultimately, that lowers turnover and boosts job satisfaction.

Bereavement vs. Grief

Grief and bereavement might sound identical, but they refer to two different things.

Grief is the emotional experience of loss. You’ve probably heard about the five stages of grief, defined by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (CNN): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That’s s a popular paradigm, but it’s also reductive and a little outdated. Since Dr. Kübler-Ross’s research came out in 1969, we’ve learned a lot more about the grieving process.

Bereavement is the experience of the loss itself, along with a period of mourning and adjustment. This umbrella term includes the experience of grief, along with practical issues like funeral planning, time off work, and so on.

What Happens During Bereavement?

Bereavement doesn’t follow a set timeline. It can take years to sort out a person’s will, rebalance shared finances, sell a house, etc. Handling those details while you’re grieving only makes them harder – and slower.

Grief alone can be overwhelming. For some people, it even has physical symptoms. A bereaved person might have trouble sleeping, eating, or going about their daily life. A small number of peopleunder 10% – develop prolonged grief disorder, which is a diagnosable mental illness (NPR).

Psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor explains that “grief is a universal experience” that changes brain chemistry. “And when we can connect,” she says, “it is better.”

bereavement policy

Bereavement Policy Template

Establishing a policy doesn’t have to be difficult, it is actually very helpful in setting expectations. Get started with our customizable template we’ve provided for you.

Bereavement at Work

Bereavement makes it hard to focus on work – no surprise there. They might need time off or a reduced workload to grieve. In the short term, that could mean more work for their team. But in the long term, most bereaved people return to full productivity after a mourning period. To do that, they need support from HR.

Depending on your state, this could also be a compliance issue. Bereavement leave isn’t federally regulated, but a few states – California, Illinois, Maryland, and Oregon – require it by law. New York also has some protections. Of these five states, three of them passed bereavement leave laws since 2021.

Several more states have pending legislation about bereavement leave. HR leaders should track these laws closely. Make sure you have the tools you need to stay compliant, update your employee handbook, and avoid hefty fines. This could be especially tricky for multi-state companies.

In some places, bereavement leave falls under the category of paid family leave. If your state doesn’t mandate bereavement leave, you can still offer it as a benefit. In that case, you might want to model your company policy on another type of leave, like military leave or maternity leave. Make sure to consult with a lawyer before you announce any changes.

Whether or not it’s required, bereavement leave makes a huge difference in corporate culture. First, the bereaved person gets the time they need to mourn. They can give their full attention to that process, instead of just trying to power through each day. When they come back, they’ll be able to focus on work, instead of splitting their attention. This is also a great way to build trust with your whole team. Show people they can count on you in a crisis, and you’ll earn long-term employee loyalty.

How Should HR Support Bereaved Employees?

Sympathy cards are thoughtful, but they’re just not enough. Business leaders can use these tips to support bereaved employees in more meaningful ways.

  • Offer Practical Assistance: Bereaved people might struggle with simple chores, like grocery shopping or laundry. Depending on your budget and company size, HR can support them with a meal train or a food delivery gift card. If nothing else, you can lighten their workload and encourage them to take breaks.
  • Educate Managers: Up to 59% of managers have no formal leadership training (Forbes). HR can provide learning tools to change that. Make sure they have the soft skills they need to support a grieving employee.
  • Invest in Mental Health Benefits: Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can help your team members find counseling. A comprehensive health insurance plan should cover talk therapy and psychiatric medication.

HR should look for ways to go beyond these practical issues – and even beyond compliance. Don’t wait for an employee to experience a loss. Start building a culture of care in advance, so employees feel safe to ask for help when they need it. This isn’t just about feeling good at work; it’s also a retention strategy. 58% of employees have left a job because they didn’t feel valued by their employer (PR Newswire).

How Paycor Helps

Paycor empowers leaders to support their employees through good times and bad. Our suite of HR software helps you navigate compliance, updating your policies and handbooks as needed. Benefits Administration tools guide employees through the complex process of choosing benefits, so they can do what’s right for themselves and their families. Learning tools like Paycor Paths give managers personalized training modules, so they can develop the soft skills they need to support grieving team members.

Bereavement doesn’t happen on a schedule, so HR should have a PTO policy in place long before anyone needs it. Paycor’s resources can help you design or update your policy to meet your team’s unique needs.

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Get Access to a Customizable PTO Policy

If you’re starting from scratch, or if you need to update your existing policy, here are a few guidelines that can help.