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How to give compassionate leave

Employers need to acknowledge the mental toll grief can take, and create a specific policy to support employees through it

By Miriam Partington in Berlin

In 2020, many employees at Farewill — a company offering will-writing, probate and cremation services — lost people who were close to them, and asked the company for compassionate leave. At the time, Farewill, like many startups, didn’t have a dedicated policy for bereavement, so it decided to make one.

In our Startup Life newsletter, we chatted to Dan Garrett, Farewill’s cofounder and CEO, about what startups should consider when creating their own policies, as well as his tips for supporting employees through periods of grief.

Give employees time off

In many European countries, compassionate leave isn’t offered so willingly by employers. In Spain and Germany, for example, employees are legally entitled to two paid days off in the event of the death of a family member; in France it’s three days. This is nowhere near enough time. If someone lost a limb, would you ask them to come back to work a few days later? Our employees get 10 days of paid compassionate leave per year, but if more is needed, we ask them how best we can support them — whether that’s with more paid time off, a phased return to work or more flexible hours.

We deliberately don’t offer unlimited compassionate leave, as research shows that this can make employees feel pressured to take less time off than they need. We also didn’t set a minimum number of days required, because we know that returning to work for some people, and getting back into a routine, can actually help them cope with their grief.

Don’t define ‘closeness’

It’s common for companies to vary the amount of compassionate leave an employee can get, based on who it was that they lost. For example, if an employee loses a spouse or child, they’re often entitled to more leave than if they lose a parent or sibling. We do not define ”closeness” in our bereavement policy — you may have lost a relative but might not be close to them, whereas losing a colleague or friend could be devastating — and we don’t ask about the employee’s relationship to the person.

Include pregnancy losses in your policy

Highlight that compassionate leave is available to parents who lose children, which includes miscarriage, stillbirth and ectopic pregnancy, as these issues are still very taboo. In a male-dominated workplace especially, women may not feel comfortable disclosing a miscarriage. Emphasising this kind of leave in your bereavement policy will signal to parents that you are trying to create an openness around the subject and support them in their grief.

Train up managers

There’s no point in having an excellent compassionate leave policy if managers can’t implement it well. Talk managers through the policy and use role play to help them get to grips with handling certain scenarios. Put in place an escalation procedure in the event that a manager cannot handle a situation. That means having someone (in our case, it’s our head of people) for employees to reach out to who can assist in, or take over, a difficult situation. Also, let managers know that they can have this training whenever necessary.

Be careful with language

The way you communicate your policy to employees can be make or break in terms of making them feel supported. If you write your policy in a distant, formal way with lots of jargon, it’ll make your employees feel like your approach to compassionate leave is distant too. Write your policy in a more colloquial style, be direct and don’t use euphemisms as this makes the topic of death even more taboo. Use the word “death” instead ofbereavement”.

This also goes for the way you speak to employees who are suffering with loss. Don’t tiptoe around the subject and tell them dispassionately that ‘everything is going to be ok.’ Instead, acknowledge how awful it is that they’ve lost someone close to them — and while it’s going to be hard, you’re going to do your best to support them through it.

On the subject of… Giving compassionate leave

👉🏽 Acknowledging the pain of loss. Facebook’s former chief operating officer Cheryl Sandberg’s husband died of a cardiac condition in 2015. In thisHBR interview, she shares how the experience affected her, as well as her work.

🗺️ Map out your bereavement policy. Farewill has a template to get you started here.

🤰Time off for pregnancy loss. Parents still struggle to take it, but the impact of not doing so can be huge.

🔨  The legalities of compassionate leave? Here’s a helpful guide for UK companies.

✍🏽 We’re in an era of loss. According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s time to redefine “loss”. Employees need more time off to grieve whatever situation — death, misscarriage, etc — they may be facing.

Miriam Partington is Sifted’s DACH correspondent. She also covers future of work, coauthors Sifted’s Startup Life newsletter and tweets from @mparts_

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