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5 Bereavement Leave Mistakes That Dental, Optometry, & Veterinary Practices Make

UPDATED 5/31/2023

Bereavement leave can be bewildering. Beware these five common mistakes when designing a bereavement leave policy for your dental, optometry, or veterinary practice.

Grief significantly impacts the lives of those who lose loved ones - and not just at home. Grief affects workplace performance, too. Burnout, stress, and mental health issues are all rising as COVID-19 continues to take a toll. These problems and personal loss can put intense strain on your employees. 

Ensuring a fair, compassionate bereavement policy is the right thing to do, and it’s also good for your practice. Fortune notes that even before the pandemic, “grief was estimated to cost employers up to $75 billion every year in lost productivity,” and associated employee burnout adds $190 billion to healthcare costs yearly. 

To ensure you meet employee needs with grace, dignity, and fairness, we’ve compiled a list of the five most frequent mistakes dentists, doctors, and office managers make while handling bereavement. 

Recommended Reading: Bereavement Leave Guide

Mistake #1 - Not Having a Bereavement Policy in Place

You can avoid confusion and reduce stress on bereaved team members by creating and implementing a clear bereavement policy. The policy should be designed to meet your employees’ needs while complying with local, state, and federal laws. 

Critical details to cover in the policy include how much bereavement time is available, whether bereavement leave is paid, and which situations qualify for bereavement leave and related pay.

No federal law requires paid time off for grief; state bereavement leave requirements are rare. Oregon is the only state that requires paid time off for bereavement. This regulation applies to practices with more than 25 employees. Additionally, Illinois has a Child Bereavement Leave Act that requires companies with 50+ employees to offer employees up to 10 days off following the death of a child. 

Other than those two examples, a bereavement leave policy is at your discretion. However, many dental, optometry and veterinary practices offer bereavement leave as part of their paid time off policy and benefits packages because they understand how critical this time off is for team members who have lost loved ones.

HR for Health creates employee handbooks that meet the requirements of all relevant state, local, and federal regulations.

Recommended Reading: California Expands Employee Rights to Family and Medical Leave.

Mistake # 2 - Applying Time Off Inconsistently 

Most dental, optometry, and veterinary practices make it a point to apply their policies consistently with all team members. But occasionally, you may slip and give more leave to long-time employees or those with whom you work more closely. You must stay consistent, not only for morale purposes but to avoid discrimination claims. 

Remember, if you give one team member five days off when their grandmother dies, you must do the same for any other employee in the same situation. Having your bereavement policy firmly in place will prevent inconsistency and reinforce that everyone is part of the same team.

Recommended Reading: The Unofficial Guide to Paid vs. Unpaid Leave.

Mistake #3 - Not Being Sensitive to the Employee’s Grief Process

When a team member requests bereavement leave, avoid the temptation to require proof of their loved one’s passing. Even if you are short-staffed or the employee has performance issues, compassion and sensitivity are critical during this time. 

No one appreciates being asked for details or documentation when a friend or family member dies. Expressing doubts about their situation or questioning their credibility can cause long-term damage to employees’ engagement. 

Knowing the right thing to say when a team member is grieving is hard. The most important point to remember is that you can make things much worse by downplaying their grief or encouraging them to move on. 

When your employee returns to work, consider expressing the following: 

  • “We are glad you are back. Please let us know if we can do anything to make life easier.”  This statement shows empathy without overwhelming the employee.
  • “How are you today?” rather than “How are you?” Grief is a process that ebbs and flows over time. Some days are better than others.
  • “I’ll be in my office for the next hour if you need someone to talk to.” Make a specific offer to listen, but do not press the bereaved. They will speak to you when and if they are ready.

You can find more details on using PTO and FMLA leave here.

Recommended Reading: 7 of Today’s HR Challenges & How to Handle Them

Mistake #4 - Waiting for the Employee to Ask for Help 

Many employees are uncomfortable asking for help because they think it shows weakness or puts their job performance on display. You can make things easier by being proactive instead of waiting for them to ask for help. Collaborate on strategies that will provide support and ease them back into their work-related responsibilities.

For example, if difficult or unpleasant tasks can be temporarily reassigned, go ahead and make the change. This small step will remove some pressure without putting the bereaved team member on the spot. Also, think about helping them at home by providing meals or caring for other practical needs. And yes, sending flowers is always an appropriate gesture. 

Recommended Reading: HR Doesn’t Have to Be Scary

Mistake #5 - Not Respecting the Employee’s Privacy 

Keep your employee’s situation confidential unless you are specifically asked to share information with other team members. The security of knowing their privacy will be respected is critical, even in a close-knit healthcare practice. 

Recommended Reading: Your HR Awareness Month Compliance Check-Up

How HR for Health Can Help

With no absolute, set-in-stone standards for bereavement leave, it’s up to individual practices to create policies that balance the needs of their employees and the business. The biggest mistake would be not having a policy at all, as that can lead to confusion, inconsistency, and disengagement. 

HR for Health creates customized HR policies (including leave issues) for clients. With our guidance, you can help your team members through their grief while sidestepping legal matters. 

Did you know that HR for Health monitors all federal, state, and local laws and regulations that affect your practice? If you have questions about paid and unpaid time off issues including bereavement leave —please get in touch with us. Schedule a consultation now to learn more.

Quick note: This is not to be taken as legal or HR advice. Since employment laws change over time and can vary by location and industry, consult a lawyer or HR expert for specific guidance. Learn about HR for Health's HR services.