Lead With Inclusion

How to make more space at work for loss and grief

May 1, 2024

When it comes to grief in the workplace, our standards for inclusion are pretty grim. We tend to ignore and belittle others’ experiences more than we may realize.

What types of grief are valued at work? And what types of losses are considered significant enough to warrant time off?

Lead With Inclusion:

At most places of work in the US, we get three days bereavement when someone significant to us passes. I hope you agree that this is not enough. It’s nowhere nearsufficient to handle friend and family affairs, attend a funeral, and make space for our own sadness. And that’s without considering that many of us live far from loved ones. We may have to go long distances to reach the home of the person who died, and after a day of travel on either end, most of our bereavement leave is gone.

I saw a post recently (and I’ve seen many similar ones) where someone was upset because their manager scolded them for not giving enough notice when their grandmother died! There was just no humanity—no empathy—in their manager’s response to this serious event.

And the quantity of bereavement leave isn’t all we need to expand, but also our respect for grieving different kinds of losses.

Miscarriages are one of the many types of losses we don’t, as a work culture, take into consideration. Many companies don’t have a policy that respects the gravity of losing the potential of a child. When a parent wants to take time off to process, it’s not typically considered bereavement. The carrying parent might get “sick time” if they are medically ill as a result of the miscarriage, but in other cases, they’ll have to use their vacation time. And what about the loss associated with a diagnosis of chronic illness? When transitioning a loved one to hospice care? When a global event directly impacts an employees’ culture or country of origin?

We need to take the time to evaluate if our work policies around grief and loss are meeting our employees’ needs. Spoiler alert: They are not.

Be an Inclusive Leader:

Our thought process around bereavement and how much time off we get has to change. Even if this were only because our families have been spread across such distances, that would be enough.

And if we consider the origin of many of these policies, we may recall that it used to be mostly men at the office. Back then, a three-day leave may have seemedsufficient (though it’s absurd to think that men don’t need time to grieve), but only because women were expected to handle the homes and all the feelings! When current policies fail to take evolving gender roles into account, it certainly says something about inclusion.

How long has it even been since your company changed with the times? The way we treat our employees—in the full spectrum of their experience—is long overdue for an upgrade. Consider the following to create emotionally intelligent, inclusive policies that support your employees through loss:

  • The Less Specific, the Better. Bereavement policies may be difficult to define with a hard line, so maybe the line needs to be softer. As policies at your workplace evolve, explore keeping them open. Does old company law state that someone can only get time off when their parent passes? How much time should they get if their relationship with their mother was troubled? Do grandparents count, at any age? What about if your cousin, who was like a sister to you, experienced a sudden tragedy? What if you’ve known for years that your uncle was dying of cancer? Be wary of delineating what counts, and how much time healing is “supposed” to take.
  • Empathy Expands Time. If an employee comes to you with their grief, make time to understand what their needs may look like, and also, that their needs may change. Let go of the expectation that they’ll return to work within the week, or several. On the other hand, consider that they may want to keep working (for distraction, for purpose) in a reduced capacity. Stay in respectful contact with this employee, and make sure your company affords them whatever break they feel they may need to heal and refocus.
  • Watch Your Mouth! The language we sometimes use—such as “I don’t know why so-and-so dropped off the face of the Earth,” or, “they better get their act together and come back, or they’re on thin ice”—is not acceptable and makes your work environment hostile rather than psychologically safe for grief. If someone needs two weeks off, make space for them without biting back directly (or indirectly by gossiping about them).
  • Give Their Words Some Grace. It might be sufficient for an employee to tell you very little about their situation, and citing “grief,” “loss,” or the need for “mental health leave” should not call their integrity into question. Work with them on establishing the best communication possible, but understand that their words may also be unusual or imperfect at this difficult time. Having empathy requires understanding that all people deal with feelings differently, including how communication may suffer in the most difficult of times.

If you feel stress or resistance at the idea of giving carte blanche bereavement time, remember that precedence already exists. You likely have policies for vacation time, parental leave, or other leaves of absence. People are not automatons, and they will do their best work for you and your company when you give them the space and grace to take care of their emotional needs.

Have you worked for someone with a bereavement leave policy you admired? How about working for a manager who addresses a team member’s grief with empathy and kindness? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

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