What to do when an employee has a bereavement

By Business & Finance
22 August 2017
HR Checklist

Giving employees proper time to recover is key, but how much time is enough?

Grief does not end once the last funeral guests have departed. Oftentimes the bereaved are still in shock, moving on autopilot through the first few days following a loss. By the time the full force of the bereavement really hits – that day when they go to call their loved one, and realise they will never be picking up again – they are back behind their desks, at work.

The workplace is not the most hospitable environment for an emotional crisis, but employers cannot afford to ignore grief in the workplace. Generosity with bereavement leave, and flexibility in the aftermath, are essential to give employees time to come to terms with their loss, and gather up the resilience to cope with the demands of work. 


Earlier this year the Irish Municipal, Public and Civil Trade Union (IMPACT) and civil service management came to a new agreement for civil servants whose spouse or partner has passed away, increasing bereavement leave from 5 to 20 days. Bereavement leave on the loss of other close family members – such as parents or siblings – has also been increased, from three to five days. The number of days in no way relates to the time taken to process a loss but it does at least recognise the fact that people need time.

Facebook also increased bereavement leave in the US, in a move driven by COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose husband Dave Goldberg died suddenly in 2015. Sandberg said: “Amid the nightmare of Dave’s death when my kids needed me more than ever, I was grateful every day to work for a company that provides bereavement leave and flexibility. I needed both to start my recovery.

“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. We need public policies that make it easier for people to care for their children and aging parents and for families to mourn and heal after loss.”

You build up a reserve of goodwill within the organisation 

Facebook now offer employees up to 20 days of paid leave following the loss of an immediate family member and up to 10 days following the loss of an extended family member. In addition, Facebook offer employees up to six weeks paid leave to care for sick relatives and three days of paid sick time to care for a family member’s short-term illness.

Sandberg wrote on Facebook. “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.”


The Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF) estimated that one in ten members of the Irish workforce – about 190,000 people – are affected by bereavement every year. The IHF runs workshops for companies on how to support workers through bereavement, including ‘Grief and Work for Managers’, an introduction to understanding grief and how to support bereaved staff in the workplace. They have has developed a template guide that any organisation can adapt for their own employees and to include details relevant to their company. It provides details on issues like returning to work and bereavement entitlements – however IHF bereavement expert and dramatherapist, Breffni McGuinness said there is no legal entitlement to bereavement leave in Ireland or the EU. It’s entirely discretionary.

McGuinness welcomed the move by Facebook and the civil service announcements earlier this year, but said grief does not end when people return to work and more supports are needed in the workplace.

McGuinness said “Employers may feel that they cannot afford bereavement leave. It’s a false economy to think we do not have enough time, or we do not have enough money or this is too much of an irritation. This is a real point in peoples’ lives. The smart thing is to be proactive and embrace it as an organisation. You learn in terms of how to deal with these difficult situations, you build up a reserve of goodwill within the organisation and you develop humanly as an organisation which will lead to productivity.”