Employers Zero In on Grief Benefit Enhancements

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By Ayanna Alexander

Companies are responding to workers’ need to grieve by changing policies, giving time off specifically for bereavement, or in some cases bringing in counselors to help. The recent shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md., in which five people died brought into sharp focus grief in the workplace.

More employers are providing resources to help workers deal with grief, according to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management. It shows a 9 percentage point increase this year in the number of companies providing paid bereavement leave and a 4 percentage point increase since 2014 in employee assistance programs, which give workers going through personal or work-related problems confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services. New York, Oregon, and Illinois have even mandated workplace bereavement policies.

Opinions differ, though, on whether addressing bereavement should come as a separate benefit or as part of an overall mental wellness package.

Mastercard Inc. wanted to support its employees inside and outside the office, so in 2017 it implemented longer paid bereavement leave. The credit giant has always provided confidential grief resources through an employee assistance program, a company representative told Bloomberg Law. But workers now get 20 days for the loss of a spouse, domestic partner, child, or stepchild; 10 days for the loss of a parent, sibling, grandparent or grandchild; and five days for an extended family member’s death.

“We provide our employees with online access to allow them to connect with vendors confidentially,” Michael Fraccaro, company’s chief HR officer, said. “We offer six free sessions per topic per year, and if there is a need for a deeper counseling, they can come to an HR business partner and we would look at what other support we would need to provide.”

Standalone, or Benefits Package?

Most U.S. companies offer grief leave as an employee benefit or as a service, such as by bringing in outside contractors or specialists. But grief counseling also can be a part of the employee’s standalone health reimbursement account, or HRA, in which a worker is reimbursed for certain medical expenses.

“I see it more as a service rather than a distinct benefit because grief counseling is a mental health service,” Kathryn Wilber, senior counsel for health policy at the American Benefits Council, told Bloomberg Law. “Employers can provide mental health benefits through a variety of ways—mental health screenings, counselors, psychiatrists, telehealth, EAPs—just to name a few. If a company brings someone on-site to help, that’s not adding a benefit. That’s a service.”

Mastercard brings in outside counselors to help workers during the grieving process in the wake of natural disasters and other crises, Fraccaro said.

Marina London, a spokeswoman for the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, told Bloomberg Law that keeping grief counseling and education “under the EAP umbrella” also is more affordable.

“EAPs run roughly $24 to $40 per year per employee, so I wouldn’t recommend a standalone. Getting help, whether it be a social worker or counselor, could be from $75 to even $500 depending on what degree people have,” she said. “You can cover your entire workforce, since EAPs are paid upfront by the employer to cover everyone. If you have a $24-per-employee cost and 1,000 employees, that’s just $24,000 for the year.”

The average therapy session can cost anywhere between $75 to $300 depending on the location, according to a 2015 report from Talkspace, a therapy provider.

Reinforcing Stigma

Lois Hall, an advanced grief recovery specialist at the Grief Recovery Method in Bend, Ore., told Bloomberg Law that when companies have EAPs and categorize grief as a type of mental health issue employees can go to the program for, it feeds the stigma that something is wrong with the person grieving, which is why grief counseling should be its own benefit.

“Grief is not a mental issue or a mental health issue. It’s 100 percent natural,” Hall said. “Also, with EAPs, though I’ve never experienced an EAP myself, I’ve heard that it was almost like when you were in school and you’re sent to the principal’s office. You could be sent there for a lot of things, but when people heard you were sent there, people assume it was for something bad.”

Companies that support those who are grieving should review current policies and consider implementing others, such as bereavement leave, so that the organization’s commitment is reinforced by its practices, Mark Marsen, a member of SHRM’s HR disciplines panel, told Bloomberg Law.

“If businesses are going to say that grief is being recognized and supported, then your policies need to reflect that,” he said. “So, if carving it out as a separate benefit shows that type of support, then I don’t think that’s a bad idea.”

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