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The Human Side of Bereavement Leave

By Sarona-Lee Wilde

Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy is based on the personal experience of Sheryl Sandberg when her second husband died unexpectedly and how that impacted her and her family over time. It goes on to explore how she ultimately faced the tragedy, learned how to build resilience for when unexpected and painful experiences occur,  and went on to find joy in what at first seemed like a joyless life without that special person.

She calls the book Option B, as in what you do when Option A isn’t available. I’m always planning a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, so the title caught my eye. Sheryl Sandberg is the author of Lean In, a book I’ve read and enjoyed. And then having lost a loved one myself, I wondered how she had coped with her loss.

As you read this very personal account, one thing that keeps happening to her for some time is something that could easily happen to any of us. A sudden burst of sadness, likely accompanied by tears that are unforeseen, can happen at any time, including in business meetings or at various times during the work day.

If you don’t recognize her name, Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, previously a Vice President at Google, and before that a Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

If she can have such an unexpected emotional upheaval at work, so could any one of us.

From a global payroll and human resources perspective, one of the many challenges organizations have as they expand globally is in the area of benefits. Do you “homogenize” them so that all employees regardless of where they work have the same level of benefits for all categories? Perhaps the level of benefits hasn’t been revisited for many years in a particular location and now is a good time to evaluate if the benefit is meeting or exceeding market standards or employee needs.

One specific benefit to consider is bereavement leave or compassionate leave. Many countries do not legislate this area, although some states in the United States do have such legislation.

Employers in unlegislated areas may argue that they provide sick leave that employees who are grieving can use to extend their bereavement days off or in lieu of a formal bereavement benefit.

And some countries have personal leave of absence for such a case, but it may be unpaid.

Various cultures have different grieving practices that take different amounts of time—seven days, 30 days, 40 days, a year are not uncommon. And many employers have employees from different cultures or faith traditions.

Here at my current employer in the United States, an employee may be absent with pay up to five working days. After that, they would need to use another type of leave such as sick, vacation, or personal days. But is that really how we want to do it?

If we take our employer hats off, we probably agree that people grieve differently and it can take different amounts of time to grieve, especially if we consider the relationship between our employee and the deceased. One week off may not meet the employee’s needs.

What should employers do to help a grieving employee while at the same time keep their business running smoothly?

There is no single answer. There are so many considerations. However, reading this book written by a senior leader in tech companies about her very personal experiences definitely gives us food for thought, not only on how as individual human beings we can help ourselves through such a time as grieving, but also how as employers we can remain human to our employees.

This book will strike a chord within you and give you insights and tools to try out for yourself.

I’ll end with a quote from the back cover from Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai: “I recommend this inspiring book to everyone around the world. None of us can escape sadness, loss, or life’s disappointments, so the best option is to find our Option B.”



SharonaLeeWildeSarona-Lee Wilde, CPP, PCP, is the Payroll Manager for Portland Community College, and has been the recipient of an American Payroll Association Meritorious Service Award in 2000 and an APA Special Recognition Award. She has also served on the APA’s Certification Board, Fundamental Payroll Certification Committee, and more.