BJ Miller on managing bereavement in the workplace
BJ Miller, MD, is an author, speaker, and practicing hospice and palliative medicine physician who helps patients and families face illness and death realistically, comfortably, and on their own terms. Best known for his 2015 TED Talk, "What Really Matters at the End of Life,” BJ is the co-founder of the online palliative care service Mettle Health, and a Compassion Advisor at Empathy. The following post appeared as an appendix in Empathy’s 2023 Cost of Dying Report, where BJ shared his thoughts on employer bereavement policies and how they might be improved.
Grieving people experience so many problems that stem from the inadequacy of how we handle bereavement. We’re simply not giving them enough time to deal with both the emotional burden and the logistical load.
But the real fallout from the inadequacy of our policies isn’t just that bereaved people have less time, or more stress; it’s the secondary effects that they feel, such as having their performance or status harmed at work due to anxiety, lack of sleep, and so on. Our society, and our workplaces, send us signals that we’re supposed to feel fine after a few days. And then when you don’t, you start second guessing yourself, and others start second guessing you. Then you’re not just under stress—you feel embarrassed, ashamed, and it affects your sense of self.
In turn, the loss for employers due to bereavement is profound, whether employees are missing work or showing up for work really anxious and sleep-deprived, which is inevitably going to lead to poor performance. Companies need to manage expectations and determine whether their policies are realistic about what grievers are going through. People are not going to stop dying, and so some of your workforce is inevitably going to be in this bereaved state. If you continue to have unrealistic expectations of individuals, those expectations are also unrealistic for the company, and you're going to constantly feel in trouble. This will lead to financial consequences that will force you to reset your expectations sooner or later. Proactively creating a culture of care and kindness has its own emotional benefits, but there are clear economic benefits as well.
Managers who want to lead in a positive direction can help grieving employees by being very emotionally real, rather than quickly cutting to mitigation strategies and lowered expectations. Even if your company’s policy is currently only three days of bereavement leave, it is worth it to openly acknowledge that you know that what they are going through is harder than three days allows for.
It's like anti-gaslighting: rhetorically recognizing what the person's going through and acknowledging that the time they have off is not going to be enough. This sends a signal that life is bigger than work, per se, and that you are interested in your employees beyond merely their minutes in the office. Which in turn leads to a more tightly-knit team, greater company loyalty, and love of work.
We also have to push leadership, when they experience a loss in their own families, to be honest about how difficult it is, rather than projecting a narrow, surface version of resilience. Setting a compassionate tone makes a huge difference.
In addition, companies need to modulate the way they speak about the bereaved when they are not in the room. Never tell the rest of the team, either explicitly or implicitly, that someone is taking longer than expected to recover, and so you need to work around their feelings. In doing so, you are contributing to their lowered status at work. But we often do this nevertheless, because this time of life, the period of grief, is not properly honored in our culture.
The truth is that the effect of loss on a normal human person—a functioning, adequately prepared, mentally well person—is way bigger than we want to give it space for. Most companies’ bereavement leave is really just enough time to get the body into the ground. This short period gives no time or space for the real process, all the nuanced layers of re-forming your relationship with the person who is gone and with yourself and the rest of your life.
What is really needed is not a shift of policy, but a shift of mindset to one that fully acknowledges and gives appropriate space to the true nature of grief and bereavement. This should be normalized in the HR world as something to work on. If policy change moves across the HR sector, that could infuse thousands of companies with this new mindset. And if groups of companies, professional organizations, and consortia made decisions across their disciplines, that could change mindsets across a whole industry.
We talk a lot about the problems of bereavement and how to mitigate those problems, but there is also an upside for people who find their way to some support. When it’s well attended, grief cracks people open and gets them in touch with more sides of themselves, more connections with others. The mental load, and the stress, they prevent us from being able to appreciate the positive side of dying, the wisdom of death, the fuller joy of death. We make the whole process unduly difficult. And when we do so, we miss out on an enormous amount of tenderness and beauty and poignancy. That's the stuff that heals the world, and we're just blowing right past it.