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Guide to bereavement leave

Written by: Elizabeth Walker
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Published on October 19, 2022.

The death of a loved one is a difficult time for anyone. As an employer, it’s important to give your employees time to grieve if someone they care about passes away. That’s why bereavement leave was created—to provide your employees time away from work to mourn.

Having bereavement time as part of your benefits package is important and meaningful for both your employee and their family. But before you draft a formal policy, you should know what bereavement leave is, what it includes, and how it’s typically structured.

Below, we’ll go over everything you need to know about bereavement leave and how you can create a policy that will give your employees the time they need to heal from their loss.

Read more about other fringe benefits you can offer at your organization to support your employees

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave is time taken off by an employee to deal with the death of a family member—immediate or extended—or loved one. The time is typically used for mourning and healing from the loss, as well as preparing and attending a funeral program, memorial service, burial service, and other post-death related activities, such as financial and legal matters.

While it varies between companies, most businesses classify immediate family as:

  • Spouses or domestic partners
  • Parents and in-laws
  • Siblings
  • Children and legal guardians (including a step, adopted, or foster child)
  • Grandparents and great grandparents

The death of an extended family member, like aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins, can also qualify for bereavement leave. Some companies even allow their employees time off to grieve the loss of a pet. But usually, more time off is given when an employee loses a spouse, parent, or child, in comparison to other types of family members.

There are many advantages to providing bereavement leave at your company, including the following:

  • Attract and retain your employees by showing them you care about their emotional wellbeing outside the workplace.
  • Improve work-life balance by allowing your employees better to juggle work responsibilities with certain unfortunate circumstances of life.
  • Supporting your employees’ mental health during vulnerable times can increase job productivity and satisfaction.

Is bereavement leave required by law?

Federal law doesn’t require employers to provide bereavement leave, either paid or unpaid, so it’s usually up to the individual employer to offer it or not. While most states also don’t have requirements regarding bereavement time, some states do.

For example, the Oregon Family Leave Act1 (OFLA) requires employers with at least 25 employees to provide their staff with up to two weeks of bereavement leave based on specific qualifications.

Similarly, many unions outline a bereavement leave policy in their employees’ collective bargaining agreements or contract conditions. And many public sector employees, like state or federal government employees, are also offered a certain amount of bereavement leave.

Even though it’s not federally required, most employers choose to provide their eligible employees with some kind of bereavement leave. In fact, 90% of employers that responded to a recent NFP and Helios HR survey2 offered some type of bereavement leave at their company. So don’t let the fact that you don’t have to provide this employee benefit stop you from doing so.

How long is the typical bereavement leave?

Since the law doesn’t require bereavement leave, the length of leave can vary from company to company.

Generally, organizations offer three to five days of time off per loss of a loved one each year. Some companies may offer more for immediate relatives and fewer for extended relatives. However, employers can also allow employees to use their other PTO, such as vacation or sick days, as additional time for their bereavement leave.

But before determining your leave policy, you should also consider everything your employees may need to do during their time off.

The death of a loved one, especially a close family member, may leave your employees in the difficult position of making final arrangements for them. Managing wills, finances, legal matters, properties, and life insurance are all potential responsibilities. They may also need to make funeral arrangements that could require travel to a different city, state, or country.

Most importantly, your employees will need time and space to process their grief and adjust to life without their loved one. An Empathy report3 found that 31% of employees found it hard to focus after the death of a loved one, and 25% reported being constantly distracted.

Because of this, you may want to provide employees with more days than you think they’ll need, rather than too few. After all, there’s no set time limit for how long the grieving process will take.

Is bereavement leave paid or unpaid?

Because bereavement leave isn’t a required benefit, you have some flexibility in terms of compensation for your employees. You can offer bereavement to employees as fully paid, fully unpaid, or a combination of both.

Though not as popular as fully paid, unpaid bereavement days may be a way for smaller employers with a limited paid time off budget to allow their employees time off to grieve.

You can also choose a hybrid method. For example, you could provide five business days of total leave with three days paid and the other two unpaid. This method allows employees to decide whether to take the three days of paid time or the entire time with some unpaid.

Remember that you can offer as many days as you want for bereavement leave, whether it's all paid, unpaid, or both. But when making your decision, keep the needs of your employees in mind so they won’t be stuck deciding between losing wages or taking much needed time off to mourn their loved one.

What does a typical bereavement policy include?

Because bereavement leave isn’t regulated, your company’s policy can be whatever works best for you and your employees. But, like other HR policies, it’s essential to define your policy’s guidelines clearly, so your managers and employees have consistent rules to refer to before they need to take leave.

Additionally, you should include a copy of your bereavement policy on your company’s internal website and your employee handbook and explain it during onboarding.

A typical bereavement policy should include the following information:

  • How your organization defines bereavement leave, including what types of loved ones qualify for the policy (i.e., intermediate and extended family members, domestic partners, pets, etc.)
  • What bereavement obligations qualify for leave (i.e., memorial and funeral services, receptions, legal and financial planning, life insurance appointments, personal grieving, etc.)
  • How much time your employees can take off for leave.
    • If applicable, you should also outline the amount of leave that can be taken based on the employee’s relationship to the deceased.
  • Whether the leave is paid, unpaid, or a combination of the two.
  • How your employees can submit a time off request for bereavement.
    • You can request employees notify their manager or HR as soon as possible so requests can be scheduled and coverage for the business is adequately arranged.
  • If and how your employees can request additional bereavement time.
    • For example, if you allow five days of bereavement leave but allow your employees to use their unused vacation or sick time, or take a certain amount of unpaid time to extend their leave, your policy should include those details.
  • Any additional perks you may have, such as offering flexible or alternative work schedules in the weeks following the loss.

How can employers provide additional support after their employee’s bereavement leave?

When your employee returns from bereavement leave, it will likely be tough for them to jump right back into work. According to the Empathy report, 52% of people said dealing with loss harmed their work performance. To support them in and outside your workplace, you may consider supplementing your bereavement leave policy to include some added perks.

An unexpected death can be expensive and taxing on your employee’s mental health. Introducing a stipend at your organization, such as a health or wellness stipend, can help your employees with funeral costs, mental health counseling, and other expenses.

Stipends aren’t heavily regulated, so your employees will have the flexibility to use the extra money on whatever they choose as most important during the time when they need it most. This additional employee benefit can set you apart from competitors, as stipends can be used on various items—not just bereavement.

Ultimately, using a stipend to help out financially and allow your employees to access mental and emotional support resources will go a long way toward their healing process and take some extra weight off their shoulders.

Conclusion

Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you—grief is hard to process. And your employees’ grief is no exception. While you can’t prevent a loss, having bereavement leave can help your employees understand what support they’ll have in case something happens to a loved one.

Drafting a formal bereavement policy can be challenging, but it’s worth the time and effort. Your employees will appreciate you going the extra mile during their period of mourning. Better yet, your company will be seen as more inclusive, empathetic, and supportive of your employees’ mental health.

1https://www.oregon.gov/das/Policies/60-000-15.pdf

2https://webfiles2.nfp.com/webfiles/public/Web/NFP/NFP-Helios-LeaveMgmtSurvey.pdf

3https://assets.ctfassets.net/yuio4g5azqaw/2DccqyABKYHGjW8IETSjas/9b8557908b5a38dd8bd2be5a8dfb809a/Empathy-Cost-of-Dying-Report-030322.pdf

Originally published on October 19, 2022. Last updated October 19, 2022.
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