For employees settling a loved one’s affairs, there’s never enough time

5 min read

As soon as a loved one passes away, their family members face a world completely changed by their absence. They must face this unfathomable new reality and begin to rebuild their lives as they grieve the person they love and desperately miss.

This will take weeks, months, years—even decades.

At the same time, there are many other things that the family must deal with almost immediately: decisions about the funeral, the burial (or the cremation), and the house.

As weeks and months go on, the list grows: locate the will, initiate the probate process, appraise all assets, locate all debts, pay taxes, and more.

For most employees, these tasks are much more time-consuming than they expect them to be—and many struggle under the weight of the responsibilities, Empathy’s Cost of Dying Report shows.

Not enough hours in the day

Among the 1,485 Americans surveyed who had experienced a recent loss, the vast majority could not accomplish everything they needed to do within the time allotted to them.

In fact, 92% of employed respondents said they took time off work or had to adjust their work commitments in the aftermath of loss. 
And as bereaved employees balanced the administrative, financial, and legal responsibilities of loss, 15% regularly missed work and 13% considering quitting.

It is important to understand that these issues were ongoing, with employees experiencing these disruptions for a median of 12 months.

To better understand the time commitment involved, take a look at two major tasks for bereaved families: planning a funeral and going through probate.

The funeral

In the early days, decisions must be made: where the funeral will be held, whether a loved one will be buried or cremated, who will take care of a loved one’s home, and more.

Those decisions add up. By and large, the sum was larger than most people expected.

The data from the Cost of Dying survey shows just how time-consuming it can be, with the average family spending nearly 5 hours per day on funeral planning. This was longer and more challenging than most families anticipated: 50% said it took more time than they expected to plan the funeral, while 55% found the process more complicated than expected.

Funeral planning takes longer than expected for 50% of families.

In addition, the funeral is often a greater burden on employed people than it is on others: 61% of full-time employees found planning the funeral to be more complicated or much more complicated than they expected.

And these employees found that the process went on much longer than they expected 34% of the time, compared with 25% of part-time employees, 25% of those unemployed, and 9% of retired people.


The most time-consuming responsibilities after a loved one dies have to do with the settling of their affairs and, specifically, probate.

Probate is the legal process through which an estate’s assets and debts are verified—and all taxes and creditors are paid—before an estate’s assets are ultimately is distributed to the people who are inheriting them.

The length of probate varies, depending on state law, the complexity of the estate’s finances, and the possibility of any conflict among family members about inheritance.

On average, families spend 20 hours per week for more than 12 months to settle a loved one’s financial affairs.

On average, families spend 20 hours per week for more than 12 months to resolve all financial matters, the Cost of Dying Report revealed.

This was longer than most of them imagined it could possibly take, with 62% saying it took longer than expected. And it was more involved, with 55% finding it to be more complex than they anticipated.

Productivity issues

While bereaved employees are tackling work and home responsibilities with little time or energy to spare, they often find that they aren’t as productive in the time they do have—a cruel twist to an already-difficult situation.

The Cost of Dying Report found that 43% percent of full-time employees and 53% of part-time employees regularly had trouble concentrating in the aftermath of loss, while 30% overall found themselves significantly less productive.

Supporting employees after loss

Many companies are extending bereavement leave in light of the intense demands on their employees and the time crunch they face.

Most companies in the U.S. give employees between 1 and 5 days of bereavement leave, with the most common leave policy being 3 days.

Over the past 10 years, some companies have begun offering as many as 20 days to make bereavement care a higher priority.

But that’s not the only way to ease the burden on employees. Creating a culture of care, where employees feel free to talk about their loss and express their emotions, is a crucial first step for any bereavement policy.

Acknowledging that this is a major life event goes a long way.

In addition, allowing flexibility and some personalized solutions gives managers the tools to address the needs of their team members. That may mean allowing employees to use accrued vacation days, sick leave, or other paid time off as additional bereavement leave, or allowing employees to work from home or adjust their work hours.

The gap between the time our society has traditionally set aside for bereavement and what a typical person who has suffered a loss truly needs is enormous, and that will not be solved overnight.

But acknowledging that this is a major life event goes a long way. Loss doesn’t skip any of us, after all. When managers show true care in trying to address a bereaved employee’s needs, that’s a moment that won’t be forgotten—by the employee, or by their colleagues.