This article was updated on July 16, 2018.

It's a sad but inevitable fact that some employees will experience the loss of a loved one, requiring time off to be with family. Although there is no federal law in the U.S. requiring employers to provide paid bereavement leave, organizations should establish bereavement policies that offer leave opportunities for employees who need it. It can be good for both employees and the business.

Bereavement leave can support employee engagement, improve overall productivity and increase retention. The Telegraph reports almost 60 percent of people "would consider leaving their job if they did not receive proper support when someone close to them died," and more than 80 percent of people believe it "would benefit businesses in the long-run by ensuring workers are better able to cope with changes in their lives." Therefore, bereavement leave is not just a question of whether an organization offers it, but also how employees feel treated and respected by the organization during the process.

Periods of grief are difficult, and people who go through them remember the actions of friends, family and employers who offer support during these times. HR leadership should do all they can to equip their teams with all available tools to support employees during these difficult times.

Here are five steps to establish bereavement policies and a culture of support.

1. Establish a Bereavement Leave Policy

The first step in establishing structural support for employee bereavement is to create a bereavement policy, which addresses employee eligibility, procedures for requests and length of leave. A formal policy establishes for employees upfront that the organization offers necessary support in the event bereavement leave is needed.

2. Communicate Availability of Employee Assistance Programs

The next level of support that HR can provide is to ensure employees have a means for seeking ongoing emotional and psychological support. An employee assistance program (EAP) is an important benefit program that can address this issue. Many businesses offer an EAP program — but it can often live in the shadow of standard medical and dental health coverage. So HR leaders should not only make sure EAP programs offer necessary options for addressing bereavement assistance, they should also promote these options. HR teams could create a communications campaign to remind employees that an EAP program exists and it can be relied on during difficult times.

3. Help Bereaved Employees Communicate With Teams

It's one thing to have a bereavement policy that allows employees to take time off under clearly defined conditions. It's another to create an organizational culture in which colleagues respect and support one another when difficult personal events occur. At the moment when a death in the family occurs, HR can make a strong cultural statement by helping the employee communicate with colleagues.

The distracted employee will want to leave to be with family, and work will be the last thing on someone's mind. This is when HR should take a leadership role, let the bereaved employee go home immediately and then communicate with managers about any relevant updates their team might require while ensuring that the employee's privacy is protected at the same time.

4. Encourage Teams to Maintain Productivity

Because of the potential reduction in productivity, HR can help managers and teams address any issues an unexpected leave can create. There are still sales to be made, customers to be serviced and projects to be completed. HR can help managers address the resources needed to get the job done while a valuable employee is out of the office and focused on family.

5. Educate on Grief and Empathy

When an employee returns from bereavement leave, work performance does not necessarily return to normal immediately. According to SHRM, people generally receive up to a week of bereavement leave, but grief lasts much longer. This can impact productivity and affect the entire team. HR should make employees aware of counseling or other forms of help the organization offers and help colleagues understand and express empathy to teammates returning from bereavement leave. Whether through training or simple team meetings, HR can help employees feel supported and recognize signs of grief, learn how to express empathy and know when to respect privacy.

By doing everything you can to help employees feel supported in times of strife and grief, you can build a lasting connection with your employees, leading to a more loyal and productive workforce overall.

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