How bereavement policies are leaving many families out

3 min read

For the purposes of categorization, government agencies or academic researchers may define some families as ”traditional” or ”non-traditional,” based on decades-old definitions.

But categorizing pain does not ease it. And demographic trends show that, increasingly, family is not defined by biology.

Facing that reality head-on is crucial for employers to provide meaningful benefits for their employees. To be a truly inclusive workplace that values the experiences of a wide range of employees, rethinking the list of eligible losses is the first step.

Why should an employee who was raised by their aunt, instead of their mother, be denied bereavement leave to grieve the person who raised them? Why should chosen families be less valid than biological ones? And why should certain religious mourning traditions—which may include a community that reaches far beyond a nuclear family—be out of the question for employees abiding by the typical policy?

By adding in flexibility as part of the bereavement policy upgrade many employers are undergoing, they’ll avoid the pitfall of lifting some employees up while leaving others behind.

The evolving modern family

Employers that do not offer support to same-sex parents, stepfamilies, chosen families, and more in their bereavement policies are swimming against the demographic tide.

Pew research shows that the percentage of children living in a ”traditional” home (defined as two heterosexual parents in their first marriage) has been steadily dropping for decades—from 73% of homes in 1960 to 45% of homes in 2014.

With same-sex families freed of legal barriers to marriage by a 2015 Supreme Court decision, and the divorce rate holding steady, it stands to reason that the percentage of ”traditional” homes, as defined by Pew, has shrunk even more in the past decade.

Chosen families are increasingly important as well. Back in 2017, Center for American Progress data showed that 32% of people in the U.S. have taken time off work to care for a friend or chosen family member with a health-related need.

Writing bereavement policy in a way that respects the importance of these relationships creates a framework that better aligns with the reality of employees’ lives.

What employers are currently offering

More and more employers are recognizing the emotional, mental, and financial toll of loss. With employees who find themselves in a severe time crunch and a cash crunch, something has to give—and often it’s work performance.

Employers that do not offer support to same-sex parents, stepfamilies, chosen families, and more are swimming against the demographic tide.

In fact, 35% of the largest companies in the U.S. enhanced their bereavement policy in the past year, or intend to do so this year, a recent report from Marsh McLennan Agency and Empathy showed.

The MMA-Empathy report also showed which family members are included in the bereavement policies of the employers surveyed. These are the top 10 losses that qualify an employee to use the maximum number of days allowed:

  • Child 100%

  • Stepchild 100%

  • Spouse 96.8%

  • Parent 96.8%

  • Domestic partner 93.5%

  • Sibling 90.3%

  • Grandparent 90.3%

  • Parent-in-law 87.1%

  • Grandchild 87.1%

  • Brother-in-law or sister-in-law 80.6%

While nearly 100% of policies allow for an employee to take leave if their parent dies, the survey found that only 63.1% offered the same benefit to employees raised by a legal guardian or ward.

And for the growing number of people who are a part of chosen families, there is a similar gap in coverage: Only 29% of policies include a friend or neighbor or other loved one, and 19.4% give the flexibility to designate an important person.

Without flexible policies, the unfortunate reality is that many employees will be left out, and will not receive the same support that their coworkers are receiving—when they need it most.

Why bereavement support matters—for everyone

Every family deserve support during the hardest time in their lives. And it’s important to remember that leaving families out is short-sighted policy: Often when an employee is struggling with loss, their team is, too.

As they worry about their colleague and what they are going through, their stress levels go up. On top of an already stressful workload, that can lead to lack of focus and lower productivity.

Leaving families out is short-sighted policy: Often when an employee is struggling with loss, their team is, too.

In addition, one employee’s traumatic loss reminds all of their coworkers that they’ll have to go through a similar experience someday. They may wonder what would happen to them in a similar situation. As they watch from the sidelines, they’ll keep a close eye on how much, or how little, support a bereaved employee receives from managers and coworkers.

If comprehensive bereavement support does not exist at their company, the future may look scarier all of a sudden. But if bereavement support exists—but only for certain people—that is a recipe for resentment, or worse.

Supporting an employee during the most difficult days, weeks, and months of their life is a winning strategy, as well as a compassionate one, that pays off with performance gains, increased loyalty, and improved employee well-being. The more families that are lifted up, the better.