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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

We Need to Talk About Bereavement Leave

Last spring brought a glimmer of hope to an issue that Canada neglects: bereavement leave. Facebook announced an unprecedented leap forward, providing employees with 20 days paid leave to grieve the loss of an immediate family member, and 10 days for extended family members. It has been much discussed that this policy was at least in part driven by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, who has been vocal about her grieving process following the 2015 death of her husband.

But this new benefit for Facebook employees should not be brushed aside as an employee perk only attainable or necessary for those at high tech companies. Bereavement is a near certain experience in life, and paid leave for it should not depend on industry, job title, or any other factor. Paid bereavement leave may be the most important employee benefit people never think about.

I would know.

When my Dad died, my world stopped. Each day in the weeks and months that followed tested my ability to get out of bed in the morning. Looking back, I’m still not sure how I managed. Aside from the emotional toll that grief takes, the amount of paperwork and planning that comes along with losing a loved one is incredibly taxing. Plan the funeral, execute the will, make burial arrangements, contact friends and family, deal with physical belongings – the list never ends. All the while you are emotionally drained, your mind in a constant fog.

Like Sandberg, I was lucky. Despite my organization’s policy of three days’ bereavement leave, my manager told me to come back when I was ready, and I ultimately chose to return to work after two and a half weeks of paid time off. I dread to think how much harder this situation would have been if I had been required to return to work after only a couple of days.

Employees should not need to rely on luck.

Have you ever asked an employer about their bereavement leave policy? Most often when I ask this question to friends and colleagues, the answer is no. In Canada, employers are not required to provide employees any paid leave when a family member dies. In practice, most employers offer only minimal leave to their employees. Even among the 2016 winners of the Financial Post’s 10 Best Companies to Work For, only one highlighted its bereavement leave policy of three days, or up to eight days when travel is necessary.

Employees even face hurdles to receive unpaid leave. According to Ontario labor law, for example, employees at medium and large companies who lose a loved one have the right to take up to 10 days of unpaid personal emergency leave per year. But lower-paid workers may not request it because of the loss of income, and for workers at small companies, there is no guarantee they will receive any leave at all.

Many people feel uncomfortable talking about death or planning for loss. Unfortunately, this aversion prevents progress in securing benefits, both as individuals and as a society. Approximately 270,000 Canadians will die each year, representing hundreds of thousands of family members who will need support and time to respond to their loss. Employers, policy-makers, and individuals must all take action to fill the gaps in employment standards that allow the majority of Canadians to be unsupported in their grief.

The fastest change can come directly from employers who are missing an opportunity to do the right thing for their employees and the smart thing for their business. Employees struggle to be productive at work during a time when their mind is with their family. Meaningful support for employees in the form of paid leave demonstrates company compassion towards employees and increases employee loyalty. Canadian employers should follow Facebook’s leadership and boost their current standards for bereavement leave.

Canadian workers also need protection through stronger government policy on bereavement leave that sets minimum standards for paid leave, and increases access to unpaid leave for all Canadian workers. Policy-makers need to fight for employment standards that recognize that Canadians deserve to grieve without suffering financial stress or asking for special permission.

Finally, all of us as individual employees need to get comfortable talking to our employers about bereavement leave. One day, you’ll be thankful you did.

Photo credit: Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash