Coping with grief is one of the most common human experiences. Approximately 2.5 million people die annually in the United States and leave loved ones behind to mourn the loss. Yet as universal as the concept of grief is, the experience can be incredibly different depending on the person.

“Grief is deeply personal,” says Jena Wierwille, Vice President of Human Resources at Central Insurance and a licensed clinical psychologist in Ohio. “It’s not necessarily going to be the same across people because the relationships we have in life are unique.”

As unique as our experiences with loss are, corporate culture is not always designed to support the grieving process. According to the National Human Resource Standards Institute, the standard bereavement policy suggests three to seven days of leave, with the final allotted days depending largely on the bereaved’s relationship to the deceased.

Yet Wierwille explains that her experience in both clinical and corporate environments has taught her that “grief is not something that is typically worked through quickly, and in many ways, it’s not something that is ever fully complete.”

She adds that while immediate feelings of pain and loss may eventually become manageable and allow an employee to navigate through day-to-day responsibilities, grieving “is not something that happens in two to three days—especially with losses that are really close like a spouse or child.”

For that reason, she suggests organizations—especially those that claim to be dedicated to their employee’s well-being—reevaluate their current bereavement policies and find a more human way to support their people during one of life’s most difficult times.

Read on to learn how limited bereavement policies might unintentionally negatively impact their relationship with an organization, and explore the approach that cutting-edge organizations like Central Insurance have taken to address this need for change.

JUMP AHEAD | Coping with Grief Shouldn’t Be a Privilege

Understanding The Stages & Impact of Grief

To understand the complexities of coping with grief, it’s important first to outline how the average grieving process looks.

“Grief is like a quick version of human evolution within a single person,” Wierwille says. “It takes time, and in the end, it can lead to a new version of yourself.”

Though there are many models of the grieving process, most agree that the first step is bartering or negotiation, in which there is firm disbelief that the person is really gone. 

“In this stage, you’re almost trying to problem solve. You’re going through the mental gymnastics of ‘how can I trade something to make this not be real?’” Wierwille explains. 

Then comes disbelief which is usually accompanied by utter shock and blame. In many cases, this blame is internally placed—if only I didn’t send them to the store, I should have just picked the kids up myself, etc.—which can be an incredibly difficult phase to work through.

Depending on the individual, sadness or anger may come next when coping with grief. During these stages, the individual may feel the extremes of each emotion and come back cyclically to either anger or sadness over and over as they process the tragedy.

After a person has successfully passed through all of these phases, most will eventually land in a place of acceptance

“Acceptance is the outcome of that mini human evolution process,” Wierwille says. “In this phase, you begin to work toward accepting what’s happened and find a way to live with and acknowledge the loss and the memory without letting that limit your other human experiences like joy.”

Medical research shows that people who experience common grief may start to see improvements after about six months, with symptoms finally resolving approximately one to two years after the tragedy.

However, Wierwille concludes that, though acceptance is considered the resolution of a healthy human grieving experience, some never reach this final phase.

It is for reasons like these that the process of coping with grief is considered incredibly personal and that it takes varying amounts of time, depending on the person going through it. Having a bereavement policy that offers sufficient support is crucial for those dealing with the immediate impacts and acuteness of the loss.

The Unintentional Dangers of Making Grief a Privilege

When a company puts an unrealistic limit on the amount of paid time an employee can take off after a loss, they are essentially taking the human element out of the equation.

“To me, that type of policy says, ‘You are a number. You are an employee. You’re a tool we will use to get work done,’” Wierwille explains.

Instead, she suggests leaders try putting themselves in their employees’ shoes. 

“Bereavement is a policy you must make deeply personal to understand. Imagine the experience of losing a spouse. Imagine finding out this afternoon that your son or daughter was killed in an accident. And now imagine your employer telling you to come back to work three days from now. What kind of cognitive or emotional capacity will you have to focus and get the work done, or even truly care?”

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Loss of Motivation

An employee’s ongoing inability to care about work in the wake of a tragedy is one of the primary risks of maintaining an outdated bereavement policy.

Wierwille explains that coping with grief after the death of a loved one can be an extreme existential experience, leading people to ask themselves questions about the meaning and purpose of life itself. When people enter that level of cognitive reflection, their ability to care about non-substantial problems or tasks like filing a report on time or sending their boss an email can become limited. As a result, the idea of “work” can quickly become meaningless.

Especially in industries that require intricate work or extensive focus, returning in a state of existential crisis can be damaging to both the employee and the output of the work itself.

Wierwille suggests employers ask themselves, “How much mental effort and focus is required to do this employee’s work well?” Then use that information to determine what a reasonable return-to-work plan might be if they were grieving a significant loss.

Employee Turnover

One common sticking point for employers considering a more human approach to bereavement is the fear of coverage logistics during an employee’s extended absence.

However, Wierwille explains that companies that let this fear prevent initiating positive change will end up facing the same coverage problems alongside potentially employee turnover.

Whether you give your employees two or three days of coverage or an appropriate number of weeks, “you will likely have some logistics and performance planning on your hands,” she says. But if an employee comes back from leave and doesn’t feel they were cared for or can’t keep up with their work, they will likely resign altogether, leaving you with an even more complicated logistical issue to overcome. 

“This turnover is going to impact the team in the same way it would have if that individual took the appropriate amount of time to recover in the first place,” she says, adding, “Actually, that turnover will be worse because now your employees have seen the way your company did not show up for its people when they needed it the most.”

How to Effectively Support Employees Coping with Grief

In June 2022, Central unveiled its industry-leading paid leave policy which was designed to be more generous than 75% of companies in the tech sector—an industry known for its competitive benefits packages.

Alongside updated paid vacation, parental leave, family caregiver leave, and short-term disability policies, Central’s new benefits package offers employees a full eight weeks of 100% paid leave for the death of a spouse or child.

“With those losses that most would agree are the most difficult—like a spouse or child—we know that’s likely to be something that requires an extended amount of time for grieving. This is why we landed on what we think is a pretty unique eight-week period for recovery.”

Wierwille continues that “there could certainly be scenarios where an employee loses someone who’s not a spouse or a child, but still requires a good amount of time to grieve. That’s where we have some of the short-term disability policies in place, as well as some mental health support.”

Did You Know: Central’s new short-term disability policy is based on years of service. For example, employees with three years of service receive ten weeks of 100% paid short-term disability, and an additional six weeks at 70% of their salary, for a total of 26 weeks.

Develop an Equitable Approach to Bereavement

While some companies may choose to handle bereavement leave on a case-by-case basis, Central’s leadership decided to develop and announce its policies to the company as a whole to remain equitable among employees. 

“Different employees have different levels of closeness in their relationships with their supervisors and have different levels of comfort sharing their personal lives and experiences,” Wierwille says.

In response, she spearheaded the company-wide policy changes. “I thought, ‘let’s call it out. Let’s make it a thing that everyone has equal access to.’” 

Making an Immediate Impact

Only 24 hours after implementing the new paid bereavement policy company-wide, one of Central’s employees experienced the loss of a spouse. 

Because of the new policy’s clear guidelines, “we were able to let her know, ‘We got you. We won’t see you for a couple of months, but we’re here,’” Wierwille recalls. “I’ve had the chance to speak with her a few times since then, and she said she had no idea how much that time would be needed and how much it meant. That, for me, solidified why this is so important.

“Because you go to that viewing, and you hug that employee, and say, ‘nothing matters except this.’ And that’s just it. There’s no question. And we can back that up with a policy that everyone can access. It’s just confirmation of having done the right thing.”

Provide Additional Support for Employees

Alongside industry-leading paid time off options, Central recently unveiled a new company-wide mental health benefit, which gives employees across the organization access to free sessions with mental health professionals.

Though these services are not limited to those coping with grief, Central hopes that this additional step toward equitable wellness for all helps demonstrate the company’s commitment to its people.

“We want to provide wellness resources to employees so that they have a safe space and professional guidance as they work through life’s difficult experiences,” Wierwille says. “Some take advantage of these offerings, some don’t, and that’s okay. But from the employer’s perspective, I believe that it’s our job to provide the option of these resources.”

A Human Approach to Business

Central’s choice to develop an industry-leading bereavement policy is appropriate for an organization that prides itself on putting relationships at the forefront of its work.

In fact, leadership’s desire to demonstrate that the company’s commitment to relationships is more than just a verbal promise is what prompted such radical change.

“What you say has to line up with what you do, and a lot of what you do ends up being in the form of policy,” Wierwille says. “It’s really important to me that if we say we care about family, if we say we care about our employees as humans, then let’s look at those human experiences that matter the most and ask ourselves, ‘what are we doing to show up?’”

She goes on to explain that “if we choose to offer a simple, three-day bereavement policy, okay. But then we can’t say we care about our people. You can’t have it both ways.”

Why More Organizations Should Adopt Equitable Bereavement Policies

Alongside the opportunity to show up for their employees when they need it the most, a bereavement policy that makes the process of coping with grief both an acceptable and supported phase of loss can build trust and loyalty within an organization. 

“Above the work, above the relationship as employer and employee, this type of policy shows your people that, human to human, you care and you want to show up in the moments that matter,” Wierwille says. “From my perspective, these moments of showing up for our people are more important than anything else.”


One response to “Coping with Grief Shouldn’t Be a Privilege”

  1. […] modification contains paid maternity and paternity go away, aggressive trip packages, a beneficiant bereavement coverage, and […]

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