I'm not an expert in bereavement or the best way to handle grief and loss in the workplace. But I was fortunate recently to meet and talk with someone who is.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, more than two years ago. She's since gone on to bravely share her story in the bestselling book, Option B, which outlines her efforts to face adversity,  build resilience and find joy in the wake of personal tragedy.

Sheryl was among the first to shine a light on the way death, grief and bereavement is handled inside companies. Death touches us all--it's about as universal a human experience as you can get. Yet this isn't always something that's fully acknowledged at work.

In a Facebook post from earlier this year, she recounted how fortunate she felt to work for a company that did provide bereavement leave and flexibility: "I know how rare that is, and I believe strongly that it shouldn't be. People should be able both to work and be there for their families. No one should face this trade-off."

But many people do face exactly this trade-off. Policies vary by company and by jurisdiction, but paid leave for funerals and to grieve is generally limited. In the U.S., the Department of Labor doesn't require payment of employees for funeral leave. Many employers do extend this benefit, but often just for a short time, typically from three to five days when an employee loses an immediate family member.

Beyond this, there's a related challenge that sometimes goes unacknowledged in the workplace: the strain on employees who act as primary caregivers when family members are faced with a serious or life-threatening illness. This can be an extraordinarily trying time--mentally, physically and emotionally--yet paid leave is often limited, leaving employees to juggle working and taking care of loved ones at the same time.

Thanks in part to Sheryl's efforts, however, this dynamic is starting to change. In February, Facebook itself began offering all employees up to 20 days paid leave to grieve an immediate family member, as well as up to six weeks of paid leave to take care of a sick relative. SurveyMonkey, where Sheryl's late husband served as CEO, followed suit this summer. Mastercard and Microsoft are among a small but growing number of companies now offering extended paid bereavement and compassionate care leave to employees.  

But this policy doesn't have to and shouldn't be limited to just giant companies. Over the years, I've seen the impact of personal tragedy and loss among my own employees. Talking with Sheryl crystallized how critical it is to provide everyone adequate time and space to begin to grieve. Taking up her challenge, I found a way to prioritize this with my HR team, and we were able to extend 20 days of paid leave to all employees for bereavement or to care for an ailing loved one (not just a family member, as we can mourn a close friend as dearly as a relative.)   

In hindsight, this was both overdue and absolutely necessary. The process of grieving is intensely personal and ongoing. But expecting employees to bounce back and be ready to return to work in a few days simply doesn't make sense. People need time to mourn and heal after a loss, to address their own needs and those of their family. They shouldn't have to be concerned about lost pay due to time off work.

Sheryl is quick to point out that the benefit here is reciprocal. "Companies that stand by the people who work for them do the right thing and the smart thing--it helps them serve their mission, live their values and improve their bottom line by increasing the loyalty and performance of their workforce," she writes.

There's an elemental lesson in these words. Yes, companies need to make money. But treating employees with dignity and respect--extending trust and commitment to them--is the surest, and really the only, way to earn trust and commitment in return.

It took just one short encounter for me to be inspired by Sheryl Sandberg and the work she's doing to bring family leave into the spotlight. In the face of adversity, she's found strength and brought hope to many others. It's my hope that other companies now take up her challenge, as well. It's time we talked about grief, bereavement and loss in the workplace. It's time we built adequate paid leave for this into the way we do business. It's time to show up for the employees who show up for us.   

Published on: Nov 30, 2017
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