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A Constructivist Approach to Formal Death Education for the Geographically Distributed Workplace

Updated: Feb 16


Authors: Beth Hewett, PhD, CT,

Joanne Cacciatore, PhD, MISS Foundation, Professor at Arizona State University

and Karen Perry


Cite as:

Hewett, B., Cacciatore, J., & Perry, K. (2024). A Constructivist Approach to Formal Death Education for the Geographically Distributed Workplace. Available online: centerforlossandtrauma.com


Thanatologists specializing in death education (DE) have a responsibility to consider the sociocultural influences on people’s understanding of death, such as family, schools, peers, and religion per the Association for Death Education and Counseling’s (ADEC) Body of Knowledge (BoK) Matrix, composed for the thanatology certification. The BoK Matrix acknowledges the workplace in the Loss, Grief, and Mourning category intersected by the Institutional/Societal indicator and hints at the workplace in the Impact of Larger Systems Indicator. Yet, the workplace is underrepresented in key texts selected for certification, suggesting that it may not be understood as an influential space in which adults are socialized about death and grief. There is more to this issue than whether, as cited in Death & Dying, Life & Living (one of two ADEC thanatology certification recommended texts), “business practices [. . . ] permit a bereaved person to take 1 or 2 days off work but then expect that individual to come back to work ready to function as if nothing had happened” (Corr et al., 2019, p. 261), a statement used to exemplify a socially “oppressive toleration” of grief that cannot be allowed to “disturb” others (p. 260). As the second text used for certification, ADEC’s Handbook of Thanatology, 3rd ed. (2021) failed to consider the workplace deeply for how it inculcates values about loss, death, and grief (see, for example, Sofka & Pitsillides, 2021, and McCord et al., 2021).


All the normal challenges of dealing with grief from death occur in workplace settings (Wilson et al., 2020), whether in-office or geographically distributed (O’Duinn, 2018).[1] Employers often overlook grief’s effects on employees, who spend one third to half their waking hours at work (Fisk, 2022; Gilbert & Kelloway, 2021; Wilson et al., 2019). Thus, inattention to grief in the workplace is problematic. Employees and their primary family members inevitably die, and many workplaces fail to provide adequate grief support (Cacciatore et al., 2021), indicating that inattention to the bereaved’s needs is a missed teachable moment for more compassionate support. Whether accomplished informally and implicitly through everyday interactions or more explicitly through formal DE, those teachable moments convey some reality to the bereaved because, as McCord and colleagues (2018) have lamented, “no death education is still death education” (p. 476, italics in original). Complicating this issue is the increased movement toward highly distributed (and even remote) workforces both before and since the COVID-19 pandemic (Flood, 2019; George et al., 2022; Ozimek, 2020), a scenario that means many bereaved people may be receiving such work-based death education via sources other than their human resources (HR) departments, which in a co-located business setting likely would mean a face-to-face meeting with an HR representative in the same building. Although not specific to bereavement, George and colleagues (2022) strongly suggested that frequent collegial contact with people who make them feel supported was important to employee wellbeing.


Therefore, we theorized that using a contextualized phenomenological approach to one person’s experience of bereavement in a distributed workforce might help in understanding better what contemporary workers learn about death and grief. Our data analysis—which included the employee’s experience, an internally circulated survey of her peers, and interviews of involved managers—indicated that developing a formal DE curriculum might assist employers, HR representatives, and the bereaved in navigating death and bereavement compassionately in distributed workplace settings.


Grief in Workplace Settings

HR departments have important responsibilities when employees experience deaths: establishing and communicating clear bereavement policies, enabling communication between the bereaved and coworkers; educating and supporting coworkers in how to express sympathy; addressing possible ongoing productivity; treating employees equitably; providing grief education; and offering resources like counseling, support, and supportive supervisory meetings before employees return to work (Tyler, 2003). Marshall (2015) expressed four strategies for assisting the bereaved: (1) educate employees about grief, (2) make accommodations, (3) support the team who support the bereaved, and (4) engage long-term empathy. Fisk (2022) argued the need for a social-ecological model that addresses grief’s intricate and ingrained nature in the workplace, including individual, social, organizational, and societal levels at which grief might be experienced and that organizations should consider in their policies. Gilbert and colleagues (2021) determined a four-themed “C.A.R.E. model” for supporting grieving employees: “(1) effective two-way communication about bereavement matters, (2) accommodation of the employees’ unique needs and job design, (3) recognition of the loss, and (4) emotional support for bereaved employees” (p. 408).


Nonetheless, Cacciatore and colleagues (2021) found only a 31% satisfaction rating for workplace support in grief, nearly the lowest mean score in a between-groups analysis. Coworkers may not know what to say and may say something hurtful or not acknowledge the loss, and the bereaved may perceive them as uncaring and unsupportive (Hopwood, 2010). Yet, social support is imperative to post-bereavement adjustment (Fisk, 2022; Giannini, 2020; Worden, 2018), and a workplace perceived as hostile to those grieving may cost employers in grief exacerbation (Fisk, 2022).


Wilson and colleagues (2020) found “one in five adults was actively mourning the death of a loved one at the time of data collection, and five was the median number of times they had been bereaved” (p. 336). In a study of bereavement leave in 131 organizations, 80 reported that “one or more employees took a bereavement leave in the past year” (Wilson et al., 2021, p. 190); only seven of these organizations paid for any additional leave. The researchers suggested that “as most employees returned to work after only a few days of leave, bereavement grief could be having a major although largely unrecognized or unacknowledged impact on organizations,” particularly post-leave, ongoing bereavement (p. 344). With people whose work involves their own and others’ safety, grief’s possible effects on the mind and body include delayed cognition and exhaustion, potentially leading to increased risk of accidents (Hewett & Ottenstein, 2021). People may experience lowered efficiency and increased absenteeism, while the cost of employee presenteeism was higher in economic studies than absenteeism insofar as some employees continued to go to work but their effectiveness was compromised (Fox et al., 2014). Yet employers must maintain productivity (O’Connor et al., 2010).


While any loss experience can result in deep grief for individual workers, grief from a child’s death particularly can affect workplace performance, leading to emotional and economic costs; such situations may be common given that “parents whose children die are typically in their peak productivity and earning years” (Fox et al., 2014, p. 1). Bereaved parents often experience normal but intense and prolonged emotional, cognitive, and physiological distress from profound loss (Cacciatore et al., 2013-2014; Hopwood, 2010; Worden, 2018), suggesting that studying a bereaved parent’s experience might be especially enlightening.

To address this gap and to examine workplace bereavement in a geographically distributed work setting, we developed a qualitative, exploratory study regarding how one large company provided grief support for a bereaved mother. This company, a distributed service corporation,[2] has more than 90,000 employees worldwide, making our study a snapshot.[3] The research contextualized one employee's phenomenological experience following her children’s deaths in a tragic transportation accident with the bereavement experiences of some of her bereaved peers utilizing an 11-item, internally reviewed and gatekeeper-circulated survey and self-volunteered interviews with three managers. After triangulating these data, we developed a draft curriculum for formal DE to assist employers (potentially through HR representatives) and the bereaved in navigating death and bereavement as a relational rather than merely transactional element in a highly distributed workforce.


Methods

We used a social constructivist approach that suggests “ordinary people construct a practical knowledge of their worlds” through the language and social interaction they encounter (Trimbur, 1996, p. 676; see also Bruffee, 1986; Kuhn, 1970; Latour & Woolgar, 1979). In this case, we theorized that workers in highly distributed settings learn both explicitly and implicitly about death and bereavement from their workplace experiences with bereavement. The phenomenological experiences of one person, in this instance a bereaved employee's story of loss, enabled us to study her “human conscious experience,” self-told and subject to her self-discovery, as described by Edmund Husserl in 1922 (Lanigan, 1996). Third-person, autobiographical, and autoethnographic narratives offer phenomenological details of one’s experiences and provide information about beliefs, values, and unique contexts (van de Berg, 2021). Engaging an autobiographical (Charles-Edwards, 2009), narrative (Peticca-Harris, 2019) approach relative to grieving people in the workplace, we begin with employee Kylie Randall’s[4] story of how her employer provided grief support after her three young children and former spouse in a transportation accident during a “Major Holiday, 20XX.”


Because grief in a distributed work setting is an under-researched phenomenon about which much is unknown, a constructivist, phenomenological approach enabled us to explore issues as they arose in the data with no expectation of generalizability. As readers will see, Kylie’s lived experience is an outlier with obviously unique responses to her multiple losses, necessitating an understanding of her coworkers’ workplace experiences to comprehend Kylie’s better. Therefore, we contextualized Kylie’s story through an 11-item descriptive survey of her colleagues who were involved with a bereaved parents grief support group, and/or the an employer based peer support program (n=100). After we pretested the survey with the peer group leaders and revised it, gatekeepers—the group leaders themselves—circulated the survey internally (Bogdan & Biklen,1992). Ethical protocols of informed consent, right of refusal to participate, and complete anonymity were followed. The survey considered participants’ knowledge and use of company bereavement services, who and when they grieved (during the previous year, 1-3 years, 4-5 years, and more than 5 years), and whether they were satisfied with provided services; it invited open-ended comments. We only analyzed surveys completed by those who claimed they used company-provided services (n=53).[5] No personal data were stored.


From the corporate position, we interviewed three management team members who volunteered to talk with us; we wanted to learn their perspectives about company bereavement support practices. Two long-time mid-level managers were influential in the on-the-ground response to Kylie’s bereavement experience: Sandy Griffith, Kylie’s then direct supervisor, and Sam Plier, a Technical Operations (Tech Ops) employee and founder of a company support group for grief. Joseph Brown, a high-level HR manager who helped to coordinate support for Kylie, explained the company's bereavement policy, which we confirmed in the online HR policy manual. Consistent with ethical qualitative interview methods, we obtained informed consent for recording, transcribing, and citing from their interviews; member checking ensured fidelity. Although thoroughly analyzed for connecting themes, for brevity, we use these interviews primarily in our Discussion.


Kylie Randall’s Story

Kylie was a recently divorced working mother of three children ages 9, 8, and 6 living in “Town,” outside “City, State.” Her very personal and tragic account follows below:


A Transportation Tragedy

On the day before “Major Holiday, 20XX,” I kissed my children Candace, Franklin, and Paul goodbye and never saw them again. They and their father Jack, my ex-husband, were killed in a terrible accident. My entire family died on the worst day of my life.


I think the holiday and the accident’s tragic circumstances led to the media publicizing it worldwide. Word that a colleague had just lost her family spread like wildfire. Some of my peers heard about the accident while in India, Australia, and Asia. Many employees—those who knew us and many who didn’t—were devastated by the news.


A few days after the accident, my supervisor, whom I barely knew, arrived at my house with two of my closest coworker friends. The company flew them to “City,” rented them cars, reserved a hotel room, and covered their expenses and paychecks so they could be by my side. They watched me around the clock; I was a wreck. They addressed all the tedious and unpleasant tasks that arise when someone dies: paperwork, insurance, law enforcement investigations, phone calls, mail, planning services. They handled the deluge, all while providing me emotional support. My supervisor even slept beside me a few times.


With those heartfelt gestures by friends and colleagues, a cycle of giving began—and it altered my life’s course. My life as I had known it was shattered by losing my children; that so many people reached out to help me became a guiding force and a compelling element of building a new life that enabled me to survive while still honoring my children.


A coworker suggested that the company should fly the many colleagues in LA who wanted to attend the funeral to “State.” Surprisingly, that’s exactly what happened. Phone calls eventually reached the CEO of this multinational corporation. This support for me was astonishing.

When the sheriff escorted me into the “XYZ Church,” my colleagues, in full uniform, lined the long stairwell. We walked down the stairs through this mass of support. I nearly fainted, and then I cried; it was so incredibly moving, beautiful, and unexpected. Several hundred people attended the services for my children and their dad.


Other people’s efforts didn’t end when the memorial did. To provide me more paid bereavement leave, my supervisor and base manager organized a fundraiser enabling coworkers to donate vacation days—so many I could take entire year’s leave with full pay. My supervisor secured a donation from a fund, a nonprofit, internal employee-support program that aids eligible employees, retirees, and their survivors who suffer a severe financial hardship from unforeseen and unavoidable crises, including loss from disaster or catastrophic event. I also received a donation from the another fund, organized and operated independently by employees who collect funds to help coworkers in need.


Colleagues organized a benefit at a large Atlanta performing-arts venue where a famous Irish pub singer from Dublin performed, and they provided flight transportation and hotel costs for me and some friends and advertising the benefit on its website. Additionally, I received gifts including a gorgeous handmade mahogany chest with three smaller handmade boxes, each engraved with one child’s image. I didn’t know anyone who worked there, but over time, I got to know Sam Plier, a colleague who had lost his son.


Sam later founded a support group. In 20XX, I was invited to share my personal story with this support group (see Plier, 2018), all expenses covered by our employer. It was a comforting bonding experience to be among workplace peers who had suffered child loss.


My gratitude toward fellow employees and management alike—and a burning desire to establish a legacy for my children played big roles in my return to a life of outreach. In 20XX, a friend and I created “XYZ,” a nonprofit organization. Years earlier, my friend had a vision of a place of hope and healing for children. After the accident, with my heart broken and feeling completely lost, we made it a reality. We located local disadvantaged children, many of whom were my children’s ages when they died, for a weekly program at the “XYZ Community Church,” designed to encourage, uplift, and support them and their families with activities and a hot meal. Our long-term plan has realized certification as EAGALA equine specialists and a ranch for equine therapy.


I returned to work after six months. I knew I was quietly monitored for a period; after all, my three children had died, adding a unique situational perspective in my workplace context. My employer carefully and compassionately supported me with these traumatic deaths. My ability to cope after suffering unimaginable loss was immeasurably aided by the compassionate outpouring I received, and I feel forever compelled to pay it forward. The process of giving back allows me to honor my children’s lives while having purpose again. Despair and sadness are now tempered with hope and love.[6]


Survey Findings

As Kylie’s story attests, assisting boldly in a tragic situation is noteworthy but not a baseline for employee expectations. Such tragedies as Kylie’s are rare for most employers, so it is important to consider her employer's responses to other bereaved employees in the context of what might be considered normal circumstances. Most respondents were grieving a child (44%, n=23), unsurprising given the surveyed population. Others grieved parents (35%), grandparents (21%), siblings (13%), spouses (6%), friends (4%), and a coworker (2%); eight people grieved someone else’s death (one participant did not answer).


Of the 53 total respondents, 70% (n=37) utilized the company’s bereavement support services; 51% (n=26) took bereavement leave and 43% (n=22) attended grief counseling services through the employee assistance program (EAP). Of those 47 respondents who took bereavement leave, more than 78% (n=37) reported that it was not enough time, 6% said "barely long enough", 13% said "just long enough" and 2% said "much more than long enough. Six respondents did not answer.

 

When asked how satisfied they were with the grief support provided by the company, 37% (n=19) of respondents reported being satisfied, 29% (n=15) reported being neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, and 35% (n=18) reported being dissatisfied. Of the few employees who reported using one-to-one bereavement support, 26% (n=14) reported being satisfied while 9% (n=5) reported being dissatisfied. Half of the respondents (50%, or n=18) attended the bereavement support group offered by the company, and 35% (n=18) of them reported satisfaction.


Participants expressed that they learned of their available bereavement support options more often from someone in their supervisory chain (49%, or n=26) and coworkers (34%, or 18) than from their HR representative (4%, or n=2), HR policy manual (6%, or n=3), or EAP (13%, or n=7); the “other” category was not specified by respondents.


Two themes emerged from analysis of the open-ended comments with several subthemes. Some indicated satisfaction with grief support focused on emotional and physical presence during their bereavement: “My FSM [Field Service Manager] was amazing. She let me know she was there for me if I needed anything.” One participant wrote that her supervisor flew “cross county” to the life celebration for a parent and sibling who died within seven weeks of each other, while another expressed that because of being away from the home office at the time of the death, “managers from that office worked with my managers to take care of me.”


The second theme was inverse, as many other respondents reported this level of support was not uniformly available but also that sometimes managers were harmful. One respondent said, “I wish I knew this program existed,” suggesting lack of knowledge that might be available through HR or the EAP, which many employees reported they did not access. To address perceived lack of assistance, one participant, who over time with the company had lost a child, spouse, sibling, nephew, and parent, stated: “I used local church grief groups. Then [a] few years later, [I] found out about the internal support group starting. Along with multiple therapists through insurance, the company is now offering much better counseling options that were not available years ago.” A different survey participant expressed being bounced from person to person: “Having an appointed person to help [me] through the benefits and support options after loss is as important. No one wants to be talking to an HR person and then a manager and then yet another person in Cargo. [I should] need to tell the story only once at that point.” Yet another respondent expressed frustration with the corporation’s bereavement leave provisions: “I feel our department policy for 3 days in the first week after loss is insufficient [. . . ]. We should be compensated for the 3 days of pay and the time off up to 2 weeks after a loss. I believe these compensations provide an incentive to take care of oneself and affairs of the deceased immediately after a loss. It could be critical to the mental health for the future of that employee.”


Subthemes of insufficient collegial support included lack of or poor communication, absent empathic expression, social pressure to resume normalcy after loss, inadequate time away from work following loss, and lack of access to provided resources such as a support group: “My manager at the time [. . . ] never even telephoned or emailed me after our daughter killed herself.” Another employee whose child died simply said, “did not receive any support.” Yet another bereaved parent said, “No personal individual has come to me in person to express their sorrow[;] in our support group, only emails sent from few.” Two survey respondents specifically indicated that poor communication was hurtful: “At the time I was working in the office, and not only did my team not understand the grief process, but they couldn’t understand how my grief affected my performance on the job. They kept asking when I’d be back to my old self,” and “Death is a very unapproachable topic [. . . ] talking about it does help but not everyone is open to talking. Our support group is a good start.”


One survey respondent noted:

I also have never liked the idea of people having to use vacation time to take time off, because I think it leaves the [. . . ] employees feel[ing] almost bitter that instead of a vacation that they had planned for years, they were forced to use that vacation time to bury a loved one. I [. . . ] think being able to save and use vacation time later after a loss is meaningful and helpful in the grieving process as we know it is an ongoing process.


Demonstrating managerial inequity, one expressed that she used “all of my long-term disability, [. . . ] vacations, and sick leave” after her spouse’s death, while another respondent, who did not indicate how long she stayed out of work, expressed that she was paid as if she had been at work: “Because of the severity of my loss, I was told just stay out. I didn’t use anything but I got paid.” Beyond managerial inequity, shift work and schedules connected to being in a large, distributed workforce led several respondents to speak directly to their inability to access provided support groups. One said: “Most of the support groups are done during the week, and I work the weekends [and] I live 45 miles away.” Another bereaved parent, despite praising the company's efforts, also expressed that the job itself interfered with using provided resources: “I wish, however, we were able to participate more often. Because we are tied to the phones, we don’t have the ability to set up and hold meetings in our offices and are relegated to only meeting (in person)once a year.” Another respondent stated simply: “My company needs more groups internally for [. . . ] ongoing grief.”


Discussion

This discussion highlights areas of bereavement support that both Kylie and her colleagues revealed were or would have been important to their lived experiences while employed by this company. Although these data are not generalizable, we do believe they suggest practical measures that formalized DE can engage to teach industry management—who then can teach their employees—about death and bereavement. We begin with the implicit lessons that participants may have learned from their own and Kylie's experiences. In our Implications, we indicate explicit lessons that formalized DE might teach instead.


Kylie’s story is particularly tragic. Traumatic deaths are random, sudden, unexpected, and can lead to physical, psychological, and emotional distress (Cacciatore et al., 2013-2014) that “is unbearable and intolerable” (van der Kolk, 2014, p. 1). Child loss, which is never expected and always traumatic (Cacciatore, 2017), multiple simultaneous losses, and violent deaths (Worden, 2018) are shocking, causing loved ones much trauma and grief. These types of traumatic experiences affect surviving family members and, especially in highly publicized deaths replayed often by mass media, may affect peripheral family, friends, communities, and coworkers. This company's response to Kylie’s tragedy suggests the company recognized the unique circumstances of her losses, serving to involve coworkers at both management and peer levels as part of her support circle.


Addressing Traumatic Grief

All Kylie’s children died, her entire family, including her former husband. They died the day before “Major Holiday” and therefore the event is especially memorable. They died in a terrible accident, which not only connects to Kylie’s own career (as well as any fears her colleagues might have for themselves or their coworkers) but also to the fascination that the media and others have for such publicly covered disasters. Although it is impossible to know the extent to which the circumstances of Kylie’s devastating loss influenced the company's response, in this case, the accident hit all established markers for traumatic grief: “(1) suddenness and lack of anticipation; (2) violence, mutilation, and destruction; (3) preventability and/or randomness; (4) multiple deaths; and (5) the surviving mourner’s personal encounter with death where there is either a significant threat to personal survival or a massive and/or shocking confrontation with the death and mutilation of others” (Meagher, 2013, p. 312). Whether they were aware of this need or not, these circumstances and markers indicated Kylie’s employer should ramp up support quickly and engage her loss thoughtfully.


First, the company activated management support by making her immediate supervisor and friends available to fly to Kylie directly after the accident. In doing so, the company created a sense of family for one whose entire nuclear family had just died; the word “family” resonates in Kylie’s telling of her story. Second, the company rallied behind Kylie in providing means for an extended bereavement leave through various funding sources, most of which allowed colleagues to reach out tangibly. In turn, this generous bereavement leave allowance enabled Kylie to return after only six months and able to do her job safely although the management respectfully monitored her for stress indicators. That Kylie still works for the company suggests this strategy succeeded in supporting and retaining an experienced employee. Third, the company flew Kylie’s colleagues to the funeral, creating a memorialization opportunity that signaled camaraderie (Hewett, 2023). Fourth, colleagues felt empowered to reach out to Kylie with cards, letters, handcrafted gifts, and fund-raising efforts. These actions led Kylie, who previously had volunteered to help others, to take her own volunteering further, in this case to assist children close to her own children’s’ ages, a form of prosocial behavior and posttraumatic growth (Chen et al., 2019).


Although such lessons may not have conveyed to other employees with traumatic grief, implicit, informal messages that some managers and employees likely learned about death and grief from Kylie’s experiences include (1) a significant tragedy in their industry is worthy of significant company support, (2) employees should be allowed to help each other when they feel so moved, and (3) assisting a bereaved employee can lead to keeping that employee.


Providing Managerial Support

It is important for management to know when and how to provide adequate outreach at the time of an employee’s bereavement when the loss is freshest and the employee’s needs possibly least well defined. This company's first response to Kylie’s particular tragedy was for managers to muster social support, the quantity and quality of which is a key mediator of mourning (Worden, 2018). Beyond her extraordinarily painful loss, however, not all employees reported that same level of managerial support. Those who did not receive needed support suggested that managers should at least reach out through phone or email; more thoughtful would be in-person interactions. They indicated appreciating a token of sympathy like a card, flowers, or charitable contribution as well as colleagues’ attendance at memorial services. Additionally, some wanted long-term support (Gilbert et al., 2021; Marshall, 2015).


Implicit, informal messages that some managers and employees likely learned about death and grief from their experiences include (1) managers do not need to care personally about employee grief; (2) the company is a “family” for some but not everyone, making attendance at a memorial service unusual and unexpected; and (3) support for grief is brief, and grief should be, too.


Interacting about Grief

Effective workplace support comes with challenges. Griffith, who was Kylie’s direct supervisor, expressed that her own manager offered Griffith support by providing funds for hotel, food, and a listening ear (Marshall 2015). Yet, she indicated “fear” about helping Kylie due to the pure gravity and nature of the "situation being so horrendous and horrific, I mean, what do you say? [It’s] kind of uncharted territory, what do you say, what do you do, how do you act [. . . ] not knowing what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. Fear. I just think it’s not knowing what to say or do" (Griffith, personal communication, 15 July 2021).


While it is reasonable to have some trepidation about supporting a bereaved colleague directly (Hopwood, 2012)—particularly one with Kylie’s tragic amount of loss—Griffith’s expressed anxiety indicates a teachable moment for both management and employees. Another example of the need for communication strategies when supervising or working with the bereaved is the survey respondent who reported being asked repeatedly when she would return to work or get back to “myself,” noting the team’s general lack of understanding of grief and job performance. Employees might experience such messages as insufficient collegial support as well as lack of or poor communication, absent empathic expression, and social pressure to resume normalcy after loss. Additionally, because corporate bereavement culture may flow from the top down and branch outward through supervisory chains, it is necessary to teach managers and employees when and how to support coworkers, thus allaying concerns they will harm the bereaved through, for example, badly phrased communications.


Implicit, informal messages that some managers and employees likely learned about death and grief from their experiences include (1) it is better to say nothing than to risk saying the wrong thing, (2) getting back to the job quickly is important, and (3) the bereaved worker should be able to do the same kind and amount of work as before the loss.


Interpreting Bereavement Policy

Bereavement leave policies may seem to be the most challenging aspect of workplace grief. Not every death is the type that Kylie experienced, yet all employees may experience their own losses as needing more support than their direct supervisors understand. Specifically what the company’s bereavement policy is, how it should be interpreted, and its degree of flexibility are the purview of individual companies. However, depending on the bereavement policy, people need to know who is considered a “family member” in a death situation and whether death is the only type of loss that is considered for bereavement leave versus paid time off or vacation use. One survey respondent indicated that grandparents, aunts and uncles, and close family friends might have raised the bereaved and thus should be acknowledged for bereavement leave. In our interview with Brown, we learned that policies were changed regarding family dynamics in direct response to previous employee feedback to allow “open-ended interpretation” (including aunts/uncles, parents’ life-long partners, and fictive kin, who have no blood or marital ties but are meaningfully connected to the bereaved) and “managerial discretion” (Brown, personal communication, 7 Jan. 2022). We confirmed this policy in the most current version of the online HR policy manual although it is impossible to know from our survey whether current policies were in place at each respondent’s bereavement onset. Nonetheless, such policy changes are not functionally meaningful if few employees resort to available HR resources at the time of bereavement, as indicated by survey participants who sought coworker or managerial assistance rather than written policy or when flexible policies are interpreted inflexibly by managers (Plier, personal communication, 23 July 2021).


Inadequate bereavement leave can exacerbate stressors for a grieving employee. In a study of employee grief after the death of a child, Macdonald and colleagues (2015) found that most employment policies addressed functional or practical bereavement issues like the funeral through a three-day leave benefit, often unpaid, that did not consider the “long-term suffering caused by grief or the variable intensity of different kinds of loss” (p. 511), which is another reason for DE to teach about types of losses and the factors that influence them. Additionally, one leave of absence at the onset of bereavement may be insufficient for some employees, suggesting the need to accommodate workers in an ongoing or off-and-on manner as individual needs emerge (Gilbert et al., 2021; Marshall, 2015).


Deciding when to reenter the workplace often is not a choice given typical the three-to-five-day bereavement leave (Elejalde-Ruiz, 2019; Mallick, 2020). These factors can challenge the bereaved at an already difficult time, creating both cognitive and financial stress (Worden, 2018), particularly since many workers may experience themselves as underpaid or in negative-balance personal financial situations. This common timeframe for returning to work was not an issue for Kylie because of her coworkers’ generosity, which provided her with up to a year’s funding for bereavement leave. Yet, most of the surveyed employees did not receive such leave options.

Particularly for sudden death, three days of leave is insufficient and should be supplemented (Elejalde-Ruiz, 2019). McGuinness (2009) found widely varying formal bereavement leave policies with implementation and potential additional leave sometimes left to direct supervisor’s discretion rather than strict adherence to company policy. Managers had discretion to allow more fluid leave by using paid time off and vacation days subject to departmental approval (Brown, personal communication, 7 Jan. 2022), suggesting some grief literacy and willingness to accommodate people as their unique griefs required. However, according to Plier “some divisions, some leaders are going to live by the book” (personal communication, 23 July 2021), revealing that top management intentions did not always translate in practice.


Often, people must substitute vacation or sick days (Wilson et al., 2020), creating negative work and home effects for already bereaved people. Noting lack of federal law requiring employers to provide paid or unpaid time off following a loved one’s death, Mallick (2020) cited Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) research that found a typical bereavement leave period of three to “the more generous five” days to plan and attend funerals.[7] The limited number of paid days for bereavement leave is something that both the U.S. and the UK are seeking to resolve in corporate structures and through legal systems in the post-COVID 19 pandemic environment (Feintzeig, 2022; Mendel, 2022).[8] Having responsive and flexible leave programs requires a form of managerial emotional literacy (Charles-Edwards, 2009; Gilbert et al., 2021; Marshall, 2015).


Implicit, informal messages that some managers and employees likely learned about death and grief from their experiences include (1) my losses of fictive kin or other non-standard family members or friends are not important enough to grieve; (2) three days of bereavement leave is enough time to grieve; and (3) conversely, it should not be necessary to use paid time off or vacation time to continue grieving.


Communicating Bereavement Information

Although effective two-way communication is necessary for good grief support (Gilbert et al., 2021), providing it is not a simple matter in larger corporations, particularly ones whose workforce is widely distributed. As O’Duinn (2018) stated, work in distributed settings specifically “means you all have the responsibility to communicate effectively,” but sometimes communication fails (p. 57). Decentralized communication may create problems: “some employees typically don’t use their company email address,” making it hard to assess whether at times of personal crisis they know how the company can help them (Plier, personal communication, 23 July 2021). Especially in distributed workforces, managers need both multiple ways of providing accurate information and ongoing training to communicate expectations that employees review that information, a scenario that formalized DE can address.


While some study respondents reported being uninformed of their bereavement benefits, they did reach out to coworkers and supervisors. Brown stated the importance of training and memos as follow-up communication because “people aren’t going to feel empowered unless you tell them they are empowered” (Brown, personal communication, 7 Jan. 2022), and that sense of empowerment at the management level seems key to offering flexible bereavement leave effectively, as indicated above. A company’s response matters as “the way managers and leaders behave when an employee faces tragedy sends a message of humanism to all employees and can promote employee loyalty and satisfaction” (Hopwood, 2010, p. 123)—or the inverse. Palmer (2004) found that “compassionate treatment of grieving employees reduces turnover and increases productivity” and the organization’s health, indicating need for practicing “emotional intelligence” and adopting “comprehensive grief programs” (p. iii).


Implicit, informal messages that some managers and employees likely learned about death and grief from their experiences include (1) whatever the manager or coworker says is the accurate guidance for this bereavement case (even if it’s wrong); (2) as a manager, there is no need to talk with the bereaved because the HR policy manual is available online and the EAP also has information; and (3) stating the policy once and in one manner is sufficient.


Offering Accessible Grief Support

Particularly in geographically distributed but also in traditional employment settings, making bereavement support functionally available to all employees includes considering such multiple contexts as the nature of the death, type of work, company needs, and the employment situation. The company made its bereavement support accessible by bringing it to Kylie. The financial costs were substantial (Griffith, personal communication, 15 July 2021) but the company had considerable financial means and, from the human perspective, management was compassionate about Kylie’s loss in that her entire family died (Brown, personal communication). Nonetheless, such support is not sustainable and it cannot always be provided, making Kylie’s case an outlier of extreme generosity that is impractical to offer all grieving employees.


Access also involves the ability to get to and use provided support like one-to-one counseling and support group meetings. For Kylie (and all employees), grief counseling was made available as a standard EAP offering (Griffith, personal communication, 15 July 2021). But, because she was off work for six months, Kylie could use this offer flexibly. Some surveyed employees indicated that their work schedules and settings prevented them from accessing available support group meetings, so they used outside counseling from churches, professional grief counseling, or other sources that may have incurred additional cost in time and money. Thus, access to bereavement care was not always equal.


Brown indicated that “a lot of the solutions [to bereavement care] have to be unique based off the work group and the location that’s there,” mentioning that company hubs may have between ten (10) and thousands of employees with vastly different schedules and work settings (Brown, personal communication, 7 Jan. 2022). The access challenges that some bereaved employees expressed echo access issues in many workplace settings, particularly those with geographically distributed workers, suggesting that access to bereavement support involves offering it at various times and places. However, even where employees are gathered in one place, access can vary according to shift work. Daytime first-shift employees may have greater access to non-worktime counseling and group support than afternoon and night second- and third-shift employees.

Implicit, informal messages that some managers and employees likely learned about death and grief from their experiences include (1) some people are more privileged than others in terms of company support; (2) group grief support is only for those who are based where the meetings are held; and (3) considerations of time and place cancel out ability to access company bereavement support.


Implications

Six areas emerged from this study suggesting how formal DE can turn implicit, informal messages about death and grief to explicit, formal lessons about supporting workplace grief in a geographically distributed company.


DE lessons for addressing traumatic grief include:


1.     any employee’s personal tragedy is worthy of company support, and that support should be flexibly addressed on a case-by-case basis;

2.     employee peer support creates a healing social group and enables coworkers to encourage each other in loss, leading to better understanding of, and tolerance for, each other’s potential losses; and

3.     understanding and engaging principles of traumatic loss, death, and grief support can improve employee retention.


DE lessons for providing managerial support include:


1.     bereavement support from management, particularly direct supervisors, is a part of the job of assisting all workers in their work lives;

2.     if the company considers itself part of workers’ broader “family,” funding and time off should be available for attending services; and

3.     grief is a forever response to a loss. This is what grief looks like, what mourning looks like, who people might grieve and why, and how long people might mourn.


Especially important DE would address the many types of losses people grieve with special attention to complicated, traumatic, disenfranchised, and ambiguous losses that affect many bereaved people, thereby assisting managers to understand why and how their employees may experience longer grieving than some might expect.


DE lessons for interacting about grief include:


1.     talking openly about the loss, should the bereaved want to do so, is helpful, to include how to talk with a grieving coworker, what to say or not say, and how to listen respectfully to a story of loss;

2.     some people will be able to return to work more quickly than others, but many bereaved people will need ongoing emotional and workplace support (Gilbert et al., 2021; Marshall, 2015); and

3.     how specific kinds of team support might facilitate bereaved employees in assigned job tasks, to include reassigning or moving tasks around to enable better safety and aid with the cognitive challenges often associate with grief (Hewett & Ottenstein, 2021).


Because people may need to learn how to communicate and interact with coworkers who are grieving, professional development may positively impact employers by improving productivity, decision-making, health, and safety (O’Connor et al., 2010; Chen et al., 2019).


DE lessons for interpreting bereavement policy include:


1.     currently there are many types of “family” (to include one’s deepest workplace friendships) recognized socially, and managers should request assistance up the supervisory chain to gain permission for grieving people who may not be mentioned in the current HR policy;

2.     grief is forever and while a bereavement leave of absence is time and financially limited, flexibility may pay off in a safer and more productive workplace; and

3.     it is sensible to balance the workplace needs with the needs of bereaved people to find reasonable solutions that can meet in the middle, which may mean allowing for supplemental leave, off-and-on leave, temporary part-time work, or remote work if the bereaved works in the office setting at the time of loss or for months thereafter.


Management also might incentivize bereavement leave as a means of promoting healthy self-care, which may lead to lowered insurance rates and possibly increased efficiency when newly bereaved employees return to work.


DE lessons for communicating bereavement information include:


1.     managers must keep up with the most recent HR bereavement policy information to provide accurate guidance and coworkers should guide bereaved peers directly to management and HR personnel and texts;

2.     newly bereaved people may be unable to navigate even simply written policies when faced with the shock of even an expected death, meaning that bereaved people may be unable to self-advocate for formally stated or implied flexibility, so direct supervisors need to know when, how, and why to provide information; and

3.     bereavement is a time when workers particularly need clarity of policy, potentially repeated and using more than one communicative channel (e.g., oral permission followed by written permission followed by oral follow-up).


Grief can create unusual and embarrassing cognitive challenges that formal DE can explain. It cannot be overstated that accurate, adequate communication about bereavement leave and other policies, particularly in geographically distributed workplaces, is crucial. Information is power, and newly bereaved people may need not only repeated communications through multiple channels, but also additional empowerment and generous flexibility, topics that formal DE also can teach.


DE lessons for providing accessible grief support include:


1.     in this company, no one is more equal than others and every effort will be made to support stated needs;

2.     group bereavement support is important enough to provide in different places and at different times to increase possible access; and

3.     different communication channels like hybrid and fully online video for bereavement support can address varying shifts, settings, and environments.

Access includes ensuring that professional development and texts about grief are available at varying reading levels, to include mixed graphics and text (Guo et al., 2020).


This research supports the need for ongoing, DE-focused professional development at HR, managerial, and non-supervisory employee levels, leading to potentially more relational approaches to workplace bereavement particularly in a distributed workplace where both in-office (and remote) employees may need deliberate outreach, varied communications channels, and attention to accessibility. These findings provide a starting curriculum that can be accompanied by role-play modules and recommendations for texts about loss, death, and grief. Annual and supplemental in-person, live-video, or filmed video sessions would support these efforts. Also helpful would be providing grieving employees with a DE-vetted text upon bereavement to support them further in their loss (Levesque et al., 2023).


Limitations

Unique circumstances limit generalizable assumptions from this study. The concurrent deaths of Kylie’s entire family through a transportation accident during a “Major Holiday” make her tragic loss highly notable within their industry. Therefore, she received support that is impossible to offer everyone. Additionally, the company in this study is an especially large corporation with the funding and infrastructure to provide extensive bereavement support to Kylie in her extenuating, public, and tragic loss. Few companies have such resources. Additional research is necessary to learn how other large companies handle grief support as well as to understand grief support in other industries, whether the employees work in traditional onsite or geographically distributed settings. Further study is also needed to determine how formal DE can support sustainable or scalable practices of relational bereavement support, especially given that some workplaces have one-deep specialists who cannot easily be replaced part-time or indefinitely. Finally, although this research was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kylie’s story and some respondents’ needs occurred well before, and COVID-19 issues were not specified. A study that addresses some of the workplace changes that have occurred during and after the pandemic might further illuminate the challenges of bereavement support particularly in large corporations with distributed workforces, an area of bereavement not yet well studied but that DE should understand to better support the bereaved workforce.


Conclusion

Employers play “a pivotal role in establishing a workplace culture that provides appropriate support to grieving or ill employees and/or employed carers” (O’Connor et al, 2010, p. 136). Company behavior regarding loss socializes adults and inculcates a way of thinking about death and grief, teaching workers whether their loss is meaningful or not to the world outside their family.


Finally, although we entered this study with a geographically distributed workplace in mind, such formal DE as we have described would enable positive informal bereavement-based messages to any employee, thus potentially improving bereavement experiences at traditional workplaces, too. Formal workplace-related DE is needed to assist company leadership and HR representatives in avoiding spreading negative beliefs about death and grief that lead to actions that do not support a compassionate corporate culture as well as offering mixed or unclear messages to adult grievers who must navigate both their grief and their need to function well at work.

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[1] Geographically distributed and remote workforces have become common particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic. By definition, a remote workforce exists whenever anyone works in a different physical location from fellow employees (O’Duinn, 2018) although it frequently is thought of as work-from-home in current parlance. For the purposes of this article, we use “geographically distributed” to indicate different physical locations and “remote” to indicate work-from-home settings.

[2] “Company,” Support group, and all employee names are pseudonyms.

[3] We only address company policies relative to employees in the continental U.S. For size and scope comparison, Microsoft Corporation has 122,000 employees in the U.S. alone with multiple divisions and subsidiaries worldwide (“Facts about Microsoft,” June 30, 2022, https://news.microsoft.com/facts-about-microsoft/).

[4] “Kylie Randall,” a coauthor, is a pseudonym. Because of her tragedy’s notoriety, we have obscured identifying details.

[5] Nine questions allowed multiple responses, making some simple percentages common to descriptive statistics unequal to 100%. Questions 2, 3, 4, and 10 allowed space for explanatory comments; Question 11 provided space for additional comments.

[6] Book written by Kylie Randall.

[7] Mallick (2020) does not account for the 2009 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that requires employers to offer unpaid leave assistance after using paid personal, vacation, and sick leave. Yet, bereavement does not qualify under FMLA, making Kylie unqualified for it (US Department of Labor, 2012).

[8] Argonne National Laboratory, operated by UChicago Argonne LLC for the US Department of Energy, offers a recent example of such thinking in keeping with the State of Illinois’ Family Bereavement Act. In a 19 December 2022 informational memo, 3-day paid and 10-day unpaid bereavement loss enhancements were expanded to include negative pregnancy, fertility, and adoption outcomes (e.g., miscarriage; various types of unsuccessful intrauterine insemination; failed or contested adoption; and diagnoses that negatively impact pregnancy, fertility, or stillbirth) (Argonne, 2022). On 29 March 2023, the US Department of Defense announced a new, more generous bereavement leave to address the deaths of military members’ spouses and children with some retroactive provisions.

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