The American Workplace Isn’t Prepared for This Much Grief
Many people are subject to the whims of legislatures and individual companies
The extent of our collective bereavement in the United States today is staggering. With more than 740,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, the country is grappling with an onslaught of grief. Some 72 percent of Americans say they know someone who has been hospitalized or died from COVID-19. And each of these deaths affects, on average, nine people, according to one study, suggesting a “bereavement burden” that could touch more than 6.6 million people. This new reality has brought into focus how ill-equipped the American workplace is to offer support systems for those who are mourning.
The U.S. has some of the most stringent social norms of any country regarding grief, according to Alan Wolfelt, the founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. Wolfelt calls this the “North American resolution wish,” or the idea that grief can be linear, quick, and efficient. After people have only a few days off, he told me over the phone, it’s time to go back to work, “buck up and carry on and keep your chin up.” And that’s if a company even offers bereavement leave, which for many employers is unpaid.
As a result of the pandemic, some experts forecast that the incidence of prolonged-grief disorder—grief that is persistent, pervasive, and interferes with a person’s functioning—could rise dramatically. “For many people,” Wolfelt said, processing their loss has “only just begun in that first 12 months.” Yet without federal protection in the form of a standard, paid bereavement policy, grieving American workers are subject to the whims of state legislatures and individual companies.
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