The myth that grief is processed in discrete stages, or that proper grieving of a loved one can bring “closure,” is slowly losing its hold on our cultural psyche. But corporate family leave policies do not reflect this deepening understanding of human nature.
In the UK, US, and Canada, for example, a three-day paid leave for bereavement is still common practice in many workplaces. And though some large employers offer more, in the US, 40% of workers do not get any paid time off to deal with the trauma of death in the family.
While loosening up for some of us, work culture still generally demands a stiff upper lip, even as we recognize that grief is powerful enough to kill.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, learned how draconian these practices were when her former husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly in 2015. The family was on vacation in Mexico, and Goldberg was at their hotel gym when he had a cardiac arrhythmia. From that loss, Sandberg set up a charity to support people dealing with all kinds of hardship, including the loss of a family member, and she wrote Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resistance and Finding Joy, a book on grief that Quartz’s Jenny Anderson called “as much a guide for the bereaved as a handbook on how to be human.” Sandberg also instigated a change to Facebook’s bereavement policy, doubling the paid leave for grieving employees from 10 days to 20.
But perhaps her greatest contribution on the subject is the change she has helped to inspire at a host of other employers.
In February, via a Facebook post, she challenged other corporations to improve their family leave policies. Since then, a number of firms have done just that. Quartz At Work has confirmed that Bank of America, AirBnB, and Mastercard have all extended their bereavement leave in recent months. So has the online survey company SurveyMonkey, where Goldberg had been CEO; IAC, the company behind Tinder and Vimeo and a host of other internet brands; as well as Chegg, an online textbook and study aid site.
Instead of three, five, or 10 days, all now offer at least 20 days, and some up to a full month of paid leave, following the death of an immediate family member. Some also extended the bereavement leave granted when a member of one’s extended family (including chosen family) passes.
As Sandberg recently explained to Axios’ Mike Allen:
“I think we need to do better for the people who work for us, and I think what companies need to understand is that this is not a trade-off. People should not have to choose between being a great employee and a mother, sister, a wife, a father. But if we invest in people, they invest in us, and this stuff is good for everyone.”
A Bank of America spokesperson did not directly link Sandberg’s challenge to the bank’s policy change, which went into effect on October 1. The company, which employs more then 200,000 people, had already been discussing the adjustment, having heard from employees that five days was not enough to grieve the death of a partner, sibling, or child, he said. Activision, a video game maker, similarly had implemented a more generous policy, offering eight weeks of paid “compassionate leave” for handling tough situations, before Sandberg issued her call for change.
But there’s no doubt Sandberg has used her substantial influence to bring real, measurable progress for tens of thousands of employees both inside and beyond Facebook. Chegg, SurveyMonkey, and IAC, for instance, directly credited her voice as inspiration for their more empathetic policies.
Silicon Valley companies especially have been outdoing each other with wild perks and benefits, a result of being locked in a perma-battle for top talent. For employees who want to become parents, for instance, the list of tech companies that will make that experience easier keeps growing.
For many young adults, however, grief only exists in the abstract. Bereavement leave isn’t likely to be one of the domains by which young recruits rank potential employers—and that’s what makes Sandberg’s one-woman feat that much more admirable.