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One Size Does Not Fit All When It Comes to Grief and Bereavement Leave - June 27, 2018

The nightmare scenarios are endless - your spouse dies of cancer, your child is in a car accident, your mother is assaulted, a death occurs.  You are staggered, overwhelmed and you turn to your company’s bereavement policy to find three days paid leave for the death of an immediate family member. Say what?!? Can every employee really be back and productive in that period of time? Does one size really fit all?

Interconnected Leave Policies

In circumstances such as this, other leave policies always need to be considered. FMLA may apply both for the time spent caring for an ill or injured family member, and for the employee him/herself as the employee faces the mental and physical issues the grief process can create. This process requires two separate FMLA certifications.

Paid time off, sick leave, and reasonable accommodations may all need to be considered as well. Remember that temporary issues, such as situational depression, short-term anxiety, grief, and PTSD are all covered under the ADA/ADAAA in the same way as long term mental health concerns. Some employers offer an option for employees to donate their PTO time to colleagues in need. Any such benefit should be carefully considered as a poorly structured donation program can create significant IRS issues, as well as claims of discrimination. See this blog post about PTO donation policies.


Empathy does not mean you don’t document. All standard document requirements and reporting policies for leave continue to apply. This can include death certificates, FMLA certification, and medical excuses. Bereavement leave, like any other type of leave, is also subject to abuse -- consistent follow up is critical.

Accommodations for a Returning Employee

In tragic circumstances, don’t underestimate the role of empathy in any return to work process. Working with an employee to identify options such as alternate leave or a reduced work schedule can go a long way to preserving the employee relationship. Be clear that such accommodations are temporary and will be assessed on an ongoing basis.

Also, be aware that an employee may return but later need time off at trigger times such as an anniversary or birthday. It is appropriate and necessary to complete your forms and follow your policies, such as requiring FMLA paperwork, but do so professionally. If you provide Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services, these should be offered to support the employee as well. Grief is a process that differs for everyone and so is return to work.