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5 better ways to help your employees mourn at the office

September 27, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

As the United States crosses 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, grief has become the biggest risk facing U.S. employers. Most have absolutely no idea how to handle it—or how to avoid the billions of dollars it costs in lost productivity.

“We always think grief is all about time off—and of course it’s about time off, and we don’t give enough time off,” says grief expert David Kessler of “But it’s also about how you handle it.”

With no federally mandated bereavement leave in the United States, only 54% of U.S. private-sector employees get any paid time off for funerals, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But a few days is hardly enough time to recover from the death of a loved one—and more time off, while a good start, is only the first step in helping employees mourn. Below, Kessler and other grief experts, human resources executives, mental-health professionals, and physicians explain how employers can help their workers—and their companies—alleviate this year’s crushing burden of grief.

Provide bereavement leave—a lot of it. Every single grief expert Fortune spoke to criticized the country’s lack of federally guaranteed bereavement time—and the few days generally provided by the employers who do offer it. Only Oregon has passed a law guaranteeing bereavement leave to workers employed in the state, although a similar bill has been under consideration in California.

Now that at least 1.8 million Americans are estimated to be mourning the death of a relative from COVID-19—while worrying about keeping their jobs during an economic crisis—employers are widely being urged to step up.

“People are afraid to take time off, particularly during COVID, because jobs are gone,” says Angela Neal-Barnett, a professor of psychology at Kent State University and the director of its Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African-Americans. “If you can, tell employees, ‘Take the time that you need, and your job will be here when you get back.’ If that is a true statement, say that.”

Loosen the restrictions on which deaths qualify as “worthy” of bereavement leave. If you’re lucky enough to have guaranteed bereavement time, it’s likely still restricted to immediate relatives. But what if you’re mourning the death of a close friend? A neighbor who sometimes watched your children? A beloved pet?

“Employers have notoriously been terrible at bereavement leaves being restricted to immediate family,” says Jocelyn DeGroot, who studies grief as a professor of applied communication studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

She has some experience with the cost/benefits analysis of being generous with bereavement leave. Occasionally she has students “whose grandmas die over and over again” during a semester of classes. “Clearly you’re dealing with something, and it’s not my business at that point,” she says.

In the corporate sector, DeGroot understands that employers are afraid that workers could take advantage of more generous paid bereavement time. “But would you rather have someone staying at home who is faking it, or someone coming to work who is completely bereaved and can’t focus and might cost you money by making an error?” she asks. “It just makes you a terrible human being to make someone come to work when they’re in that condition.”

Ease up on, or suspend, performance targets and reviews. This spring, Facebook effectively eliminated performance reviews for the first half of 2020, in a prominent acknowledgment of the pandemic’s new burdens for workers. “A lot of people are personally grieving. They’re going through their own stress and fears, and then they’re trying to hit their goals,” says Jennifer Moss, an author and workplace consultant who’s writing a book on burnout.

Moss also points out that maintaining your company’s performance targets is especially unfair to women, who have shouldered more of the pandemic’s childcare burden—and its job losses. “Not only are we seeing more grief, we’re also seeing this increase of expected workplace productivity at this time of extreme stress,” she says.

Don’t punish employees for taking mental health breaks. Instead, some companies have responded to the pandemic by giving their employees additional time off—all at the same time. “Taking a day off when no one else is off creates more stress,” says DeLisa Alexander, chief people officer for IBM’s Red Hat, which has instituted quarterly all-hands “recharge days” for its 16,000 employees.

Senior executives have helped to reinforce that no one is expected to work during those mental-health days, in part by setting up their own out-of-office messages to say “Red Hat is on a recharge day today,” Alexander adds. “It’s a brilliant thing.”

If your company can’t afford to have everyone out of the office on a workday, consider at least instituting no-meeting days. And think about what additional work you might be creating for your employees with any virtual all-hands meetings or other obligations—even the supposedly fun ones.

“Some companies were trying to connect everyone at the beginning of the pandemic with yoga, or mindfulness sessions, or just afternoon happy hours,” says Moss. “But well-being led to workload.”

Too many of those events force employees to sign on at night or over the weekend to catch up on missed work, she warns: “It has to be part of making you well…and there haven’t been a lot of really good ways it’s working right now.”

Talk about your employees’ grief—and bring in expert help to do so. “The worst thing that employers can do is keep silent around everything that’s happening,” says Jessica Isom, a psychiatrist at Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, Mass.

When her medical director recently asked Isom for advice on what to say about the impact of racism on his Black employees, she told him to “just validate that it’s tough for us even to come into work, and commit to making reforms that allow people to show up with their full reality.” For example, “if someone asks in a business meeting how everyone is doing, it should be okay to say, ‘I’m just okay,’ or ‘I’m not well,’” she says. “Give people a sense that [your concern] goes beyond the performative.”

Many experts also recommended bringing in qualified outside experts to help employees process their grief. Several years ago, after the child of one of Neal-Barnett’s lab members was killed, “one of the things that was extremely helpful was to bring in a grief counselor for the lab,” she recalls. “It just made a difference.”

Now, “given the dual pandemic of COVID and racism as a health crisis, bringing someone in to talk to your division or your corporation about what you’re experiencing, to normalize it and ways to process it, is absolutely key,” she says.

She adds that as corporate America reckons with the consequences of systemic racism, employers should also be mindful that these conversations don’t create extra work for Black employees and other workers of color. “For Black and brown people, it’s just so important that you have somebody who’s culturally competent,” Neal-Barnett says. “Black and brown employees do not have the energy to explain what racism is.”