The burden of bereavement: Grief is the latest challenge for employers in the coronavirus era

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When Megan Devine’s partner died suddenly in 2009, not only did she lose a person she loved, but her life’s calling came into question too. At the time, she worked as a psychotherapist, but even her own background in trauma psychology left her woefully unprepared.

“It's like a whole new world of grief opened up. I quit my practice that day because there was no way I could sit with clients and didn't have any interest in it,” Devine, a mental health professional and founder of Refuge in Grief, says. “I swore I would never go back into the field because the way I was treated by people in my community, by my friends and relatives, by professionals, and by other therapists was really eye opening and horrifying.”

Each year, about 2.8 million people die in the United States from a variety of causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a 2019 study conducted by WebMD, 57% of people are grieving the loss of someone within the past three years.

The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated this experience for many across the world. Despite slowing death rates, by May, over 293,000 people have died globally, with more than 83,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. These losses, along with a total upheaval of life as most people know it at home and at work, have presented a monumental challenge for employers now faced with supporting a workforce with complex emotional needs, says Emma Payne, founder of Grief Coach, a text-based grief support program.

“Employers, organizations, families — we're all collectively grieving,” she says. “But all in-person support has vanished. It's a staggeringly painful part of grief that people feel really alone because we don’t know what to say and colleagues are nervous, shy or embarrassed.”

Workplaces especially struggle with how to address grief and death, often defaulting to one-size-fits all solutions, like a short, standardized bereavement time off. But there is no “right way to grieve at work,” Devine says.

Megan Devine, founder of Refuge in Grief

“Some people might choose to not go back to work. That's valid. Some people have to go back to work because of financial or other constraints and some people want to go back to work. None of those responses are wrong,” she says. “But the way we’ve been taught to support others is wrong. We see grief as a problem to be solved, something you’re supposed to get through quickly and put behind you. We bring that lack of understanding into the workplace and it magnifies it.”

Devine says it’s important employers embrace their own discomfort and acknowledge it. This opens up an opportunity for the employee to take the lead in asking for what they need from their manager and colleagues.

“It is perfectly okay for somebody to say, ‘I have no idea what to say to you and I'm really sorry this happened to you,” Devine says. “There's so much in somebody actually just acknowledging the loss. The workplace of the future acknowledges how hard it is to be human in the workplace and what structures can we put in place to support that reality.”

This initial step can be a life line for employees dealing with the mental, emotional and physical effects of grief, which have an impact on their work and a company’s bottom line, Devine says.

“For a lot of people, your mental capacity is seriously impacted by a loss, which means your cognitive abilities, your memory and your interpersonal skills can get really [unstable],” she says. According to a study by the Grief Recovery Institute, 85% of workers said grief affected their productivity and decision-making abilities, and lost productivity and absenteeism related to grief costs employers $75-100 billion annually.

Emma Payne, founder of Grief Coach

“You're at best 20% functional in the early weeks and months after a death,” Payne says. “After my husband died, I couldn’t even tie my shoes. The fact that I was expected to go back to work was unthinkable.”

The majority of employers have implemented a standard bereavement time of one to four days, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. But this blanket policy only scratches the surface of what employees actually need, says Liz Eddy, co-founder of Lantern, an app-based platform for end-of-life planning and grief support.

“When someone comes forward and says they're going through this situation, instead of actually having a policy beforehand, there’s no plan,” Eddy says. “You have HR departments or managers saying, ‘I have no idea how to help this person.’ It's a vicious cycle because there's a lack of resources and consideration in the corporate environment.”

Since 2017, several large employers including Facebook, Airbnb and General Mills have expanded their bereavement policies to cover up to 20 days of paid time off to address this inadequate standard. After the loss of her husband in 2015, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg said, “I was grateful every day to work for a company that provides bereavement leave and flexibility. I needed both to start my recovery.”

The move by Facebook inspired other companies, like Mastercard, to bolster their bereavement leave and grief support offerings, too. Mastercard credited Sandberg with pushing the company to implement the longer leave policy. They also extended healthcare, financial wellness and mental health benefits for employees dealing with a loss.

“Mastercard is sending a strong message to its employees: we’ll stand by you during the most difficult moments of your life,” Sandberg said at the time. “No one should ever have to choose between being a good family member and a good employee. I’m proud of the work Facebook and Mastercard are doing to support our people when they need it most — and I hope even more companies follow in our path.”

Read more: Mental health and telehealth apps come of age amid coronavirus crisis

The impact of death and grief on a person’s mental well-being should be a top concern for employers, Payne says. In response to coronavirus, employers have bolstered telehealth offerings, expanded their EAP benefits to include mental health programs, and have offered more flexible and expanded PTO programs. While these are all steps in the right direction, Payne says workplaces still have strides to make in accepting that grief support is another important part of the emotional health package.

“It's easier to think about gym memberships than it is to think about bereavement leave. But I do think employers want to do the best they can for their employees,” Payne says. “We understand shifts that are coming in the way that we're not only going to recognize grief and wellness and mental health, but also support each other through it.”

One way to offer that support is by having an HR person or manager act as the point person for a grieving employee, Devine says. They can discuss how an employee would like to transition back into the workplace, how other employees should approach them, and what the best strategy is for easing back into day-to-day tasks.

“Let's say that I'm coming back to work and I'm just trying to hold it together. I may need a distraction from what happened, which means I don't want 18 people reaching out to say, ‘I’m so sorry your dad died,’” Devine says. “Having a manager or an HR person be that point person to talk to the grieving person and be really direct and upfront about where your boundaries are means that everybody can be more effective in delivering the support they want to.”

Being flexible with work time is another important option an employer can offer and be open to, Devine says. Treat grief the way you would a physical injury, she counsels.

“If you've had a physical injury, you can come back to work under “light duty,” which means maybe you need to be able to take breaks and walk around because you injured your back. We can do the same sorts of things with an emotional injury,” she says. “What would light duty for emotional injury look like? Talk about ways to make your reentry to the work world a little bit more gentle.”

Having a network of support within the workplace is a crucial tool to resuming life after loss, Payne says. Her company, Grief Coach, is a one-year subscription that sends personalized text messages to the person who experienced a loss. Additionally, up to four people can be included to receive regular reminders, tips and suggestions for supporting the person who is grieving.

“It's about equipping the people around the griever in as easy and simple a way as you possibly can. It is just a text — some personalized suggestions a few times a week to your phone,” Payne says. “An employer can provide a single subscription as a benefit to their grieving employee, and their colleagues can also be getting tips and suggestions for what they’re going to do when that person comes back to work.”

Liz Eddy, co-founder of Lantern

Eddy’s platform, Lantern, provides an app-based resource to make the topic of death and grief accessible to all employees. The app offers end-of-life and funeral planning checklists and grief and bereavement support. In response to the coronavirus, Eddy says site traffic has doubled and they’ve seen a 60% increase in new users since the beginning of March.

“There is a single point solution for every major life event, whether you're getting married or choosing a credit card, and yet when a death happens, which 100% of people will be affected by, there's nothing,” Eddy says. “End-of-life and death is something that needs to be a part of our lives on a daily basis. This is just something we talk about and it's something to prepare for.”

While difficult, discussing these hard topics and creating an open and supportive environment for employees to express their emotional needs will benefit the workplace.

“Businesses are recognizing that they're going to see a lot more people coming back that are grieving and have lost someone, and they want to be able to support them in the best way possible,” Eddy says. “It starts with the workplace, and it starts with the leadership within the company. Employees will see that when they go through a hard time, their employer has their back.”

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Employee relations Employee productivity Workplace culture Coronavirus Voluntary benefits Mental health