When a loved one passes away, it puts emotional and mental stress on those left behind.
The death of an employee’s family member often also brings logistical, financial, and administrative tasks. In addition to dealing with the reality of the loss, many people will suddenly find themselves in the position of executor, planner, and often mediator.
The combined mental, physical, and emotional labor can be a lot, and bereavement leave helps give grieving employees the time they need to process and plan.
While no one likes to think about losing people they care about, bereavement leave is a way to help employees when it inevitably happens. Learning about bereavement leave — before you or your team needs it — can help ease a difficult time period.
What is bereavement leave?
Bereavement leave is time off granted to an employee in the event that a loved one passes away. The intention is to allow employees to grieve, attend funeral services or a memorial, or deal with financial and legal matters that may come up after death.
Most employee bereavement leave policies stipulate that the person who passes away has to be a close family member, like a parent, sibling, child, or spouse. However, in most cases, bereavement can be used to attend to the death of any loved one.
Bereavement leave policies are usually outlined in the employee handbook, if the company has one. It’s not uncommon for small to medium-sized businesses not to have a formal leave policy.
Is bereavement leave required by law?
There is no federal law that mandates employers to provide bereavement leave to their employees. Depending on the company’s policy, employees may need to use paid time off (PTO) or sick time for bereavement.
There are also no state laws and currently only one state, Oregon, has a leave law in place. Employment law requires companies that do offer bereavement or other formalized leave agreements to uphold them equally for each employee.
Even though companies are generally not required to provide bereavement leave, that may change if they hire union workers. Unions might negotiate bereavement as part of a collective bargaining agreement.
Employees are also not required to take bereavement leave. The time, if available, is there to be used at their discretion. However, even though the time isn’t required, both employees and employers should advocate for this important employee benefit.
Grief can have an impact on your well-being, both physically and emotionally. Pushing through the pain — even if it helps to take your mind off of things in the short term — can lead to complications from unresolved grief down the line. These might include anger, obsession, fatigue, depression, or addictive behavior.
Is bereavement leave paid?
Companies that do provide bereavement leave may provide paid, unpaid, or a mix of both. Since there are no federal laws regulating bereavement leave, the policies are offered on a case-by-case basis. However, having a formal policy in place helps ensure fairness and consistency within the organization.
Although it’s not required, most companies (around 88%) offer paid leave to employees that have lost a loved one. Some companies — notably Facebook/Meta and Adobe — provide up to four weeks of paid leave. Generally, anyone who works at a company full-time is considered an eligible employee.
Offering paid leave to employees dealing with grief isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s a smart move for companies. Employees that feel valued and cared for at work are more likely to stick around. Whatever funds are spent on paid leave are easily less than turnover costs.
Just as taking sick leave ultimately boosts productivity, encouraging employees to attend to their emotional and physical well-being makes them more engaged and productive when they return. While any type of guaranteed leave is beneficial, paid leave gives your employee one less thing to worry about during an emotionally trying time. It’s a subtle but powerful way to let them know that you care about them.
How long is bereavement leave?
The length of bereavement depends on several factors. The most common distinction in types of leave is the relationship between the employee and the deceased.
In most cases, employees receive a minimum of three days of bereavement leave for the death of an immediate family member. Such leave often includes:
- Children, foster children, and step-children
- Spouses or domestic partners
- Grandparents, parents-in-law, and step-parents
However, many companies offer up to two weeks of paid leave, and potentially additional time as an unpaid benefit. Depending on the company, there might be a time limit on unpaid bereavement leave.
For non-immediate family members, it’s customary to receive at least one day of paid leave — although some organizations offer more.
Many organizations also offer a brief, four-hour leave to attend the funeral or memorial service of a coworker.
While the relationship to the decedent is often used to determine how much leave an employee is entitled to, that practice is becoming dated. As the family structure moves away from the “nuclear” stereotype, people form relationships that are different and more complex.
For example, some people are raised by a guardian or hold primary responsibility for a friend’s estate. This makes it more difficult to determine how much time each individual needs to grieve a loss.
What is proof of loss?
As with other details related to bereavement, it’s up to the specific company to decide if they want proof of loss from their employee. Generally, a death certificate suffices to prove loss. However, depending on your relationship to the person, a death certificate may not be available.
Other forms of documentation might include a prayer card, a funeral program, or just the name of the deceased. Human resources should be able to provide an easy answer about what documentation is needed to prove the loss when you make your leave request.
What to include in a bereavement leave policy
Bereavement policies will differ from organization to organization, but there are some elements that most policies should include.
- How the company defines bereavement leave and the types of relationships that qualify (e.g., direct family members, pets, extended family, step-family, etc.)
- How long leave is and if this changes depending on the relationship
- Whether the leave is paid or not and details around pay
- Identify which related obligations qualify for bereavement time, such as funeral attendance and legal planning
- Guidelines detailing how employees can request standard bereavement time and any additional time they might need
- Note supplemental benefits, perks, and resources the company has for grieving employees, such as flexible schedules or Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
Tips for managers whose employees are grieving
- Lean into your empathy: Support, time, and self-care are important factors in treating and processing the impact of this kind of loss.
- Remain flexible: Time is key in the process of grieving. And grief doesn’t conform to the timelines of benefits, policies, and deadlines. Understanding the need for team flexibility and additional collaboration will help your grieving team member feel supported during an already challenging time.
- Keep the lines of communication open: Even though bereavement leave is specifically used after the death of a loved one, remember that grieving often precedes an event. Anticipatory grief, for example, is common when someone is given a terminal diagnosis. You may not realize an employee is dealing with grief, so keeping a culture of open communication is helpful.
- Ensure employees know their options: It’s hard enough to manage emotions when your feelings are part of your job. Having to also suppress major life events and personal struggles negatively impacts well-being in both the short and long term. Ensuring employees have access to the resources they need will help them manage their grief and return to the office in a better place than they would without the added support.
The importance of offering time for grieving
Grief is life-changing. On average, even uncomplicated grief can affect a person for anywhere from a six-month period to two years. With complicated grief, symptoms and chronic stress may worsen over time, leading to depression, anxiety, and the inability to move on.
Bereavement leave provides the emotional space that employees need to deal with both the logistical and emotional aspects of the death of a family member in a healthy way. It’s a proactive measure that is critical in supporting mental fitness, both in and out of the workplace.
The good news is that every employer can decide to offer bereavement leave. Even if the organization can only afford one paid day, employee benefits are about more than just compensation. They remind your team that they’re valued and worthy of care and that you have their backs — even in the hardest of times.