business man wearing suit in waiting room, with his face in his hands, grieving, crying at work

Grief doesn’t just come with sadness and loss. Grief can also come fully-loaded with guilt, anger, uncertainty, denial, regret, and so much more.

Yet many companies lack norms or policies for dealing with grief — or “bereavement,” in HR-speak. Those that do have policies often find they’re insufficient. There are strict rules around what type of grief makes one eligible for leave. In most countries, a stillbirth doesn’t warrant bereavement leave, nor does the loss of a best friend, a favorite aunt, or a beloved nephew. In the U.S., Oregon is the only state to guarantee paid bereavement leave. Most current bereavement policies suggest that an employee should absorb their shock, plan and execute a funeral, cope in a healthy way with their loss, and then return to work within three days at full engagement.

Regardless of official policies, a common reaction is the kind of support Anna got from her boss — “Whatever you need, take your time.” Although well-intentioned, that’s also not sufficient. In the workplace, the unstructured, “whatever you need” approach can leave an uncomfortable void. The grieving person isn’t sure how much time they really can take, and may push themselves back to work too soon. Colleagues, without guidelines or support, may fumble to figure out how to behave sensitively around their grieving workmate. Bosses can also struggle; grief can cause people to be more disorganized, withdrawn, or anxious, and bosses can misguidedly treat these issues as performance problems.

Read more in the Harvard Business Review.

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