(Bloomberg) -- Five days, Tom Barklage knew, was not enough time to recover from the death of his son.

That was the message he relayed in a short email to Johnson & Johnson senior management in November 2021, less than a month after the sudden death of 17-year-old Blake from an undiagnosed infection that attacked his heart. The plea turned out to be a key factor in J&J’s July decision to increase bereavement leave from five days — the average across corporate America — to 30.  

“When it was changed, it was probably one of the happiest days since Blake passed,” Barklage said in a company video about the policy shift. 

J&J is part of a broader US corporate move toward more flexibility on bereavement, a complex issue that's historically been fraught for people struggling with grief while navigating workplace demands. This year American Express Co. enhanced its policy to provide US employees with 20 days leave for the loss of a spouse, partner or child, up from five previously. JPMorgan Chase & Co. also moved to 20 days this year, bringing it in line with rivals Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bank of America Corp.

Companies face increasing pressure from staff, state regulators and worker advocates to expand the time employees can take off after the death of a loved one. They’re rethinking who counts as “family” and looking for ways to accommodate different cultural grieving practices across their diverse workforces. They’re also using generous bereavement policies to help compete in a tight labor market.  

“Employers are demonstrating a greater level of flexibility,” said Jeff Gorter, vice president of clinical crisis response at R3 Continuum, which helps steer organizations through traumatic events like natural disasters and mass shootings. “So rather than saying, ‘You get three days of leave, and you’d better have coped with the loss by then because I want you back at work,’ employers recognize that for anyone, grief is a process. The ability to return to full functioning may take longer.”

Those changes can make a big difference to employees suddenly dealing with loss. Barklage, a key account manager for a J&J pharmaceutical subsidiary, wrote in his email to management that Blake’s death had been the most difficult experience he and his wife had ever faced, and he struggled to understand why condolence leave was limited to five days. “When you lose a child, five days isn’t enough,” Barklage said in an interview, his voice breaking at times. “I can’t even prepare his funeral within five days.”

Peter Fasolo, J&J’s chief human resource officer, said the company invited Barklage and other employees to discuss the issue — and realized bereavement leave was a vexing problem for many. Fasolo has now received more positive feedback from the change than from any other HR policy shift during his 16 years at the company. “I knew that we had hit the right chord with our employees,” he said. Barklage, for his part, says he is “never leaving J&J because of what they did. They didn’t have to do it.”

While the vast majority of US companies offer paid bereavement leave, the average is about five days, according to workplace consultant Mercer, and data from insurance broker NFP found that only 5% offer more than 6 days. But about 20% of members of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, a group of HR executives, plan to expand the scope of their bereavement leave policy in the next year.

Donna Wilson, a professor who studies aging and grief at the University of Alberta, Canada, said her research suggests 14 days may be necessary, not five. “We have all these people that are going back to work and flying planes and driving big trucks,” she said. “We just expect them to be perfectly able to work and not make any errors. People may just not physically and mentally be able to go back to work so quickly.”

One common enhancement is to grant leave after the death of extended family members or friends, something that's now offered by more than two-thirds of employers, according to Beth Umland, the director of research on health and benefits at Mercer. Software maker Adobe Inc., for example, offers 20 days of paid leave for the death of a spouse, partner, parent or child, as well as grandparents and grandchildren. 

Namitha Jacob,  an organizational training advisor at Social Solutions International, tried to take two and a half days of bereavement leave following the death of her uncle, only to be told “no” by her employer. Jacob, who is Indian, hosted many extended family members as her aunts and uncles immigrated to the US, and her cousins were more like siblings to her. But her company’s policy didn’t allow bereavement leave for uncles. 

“It made me feel as though my family is not an American family,” Jacob said. After she raised the issue, her company was understanding and altered its policy, which now covers the deaths of aunts, uncles, cousins and more. “We learned so much during Covid,” Jacob said. “We’ve learned that we can make adjustments to be flexible, that people deal with death differently.” 

The best bereavement policies are the most malleable, said diversity consultant Janice Gassam Asare, as a strict policy can be akin to interrogating someone’s culture. 

“If I had to explain that because I’m a Buddhist, I do all of these practices, it almost feels like now I’m revealing a part of my identity that may be judged by my managers and by my colleagues, and then they have to give me permission, versus just having a policy that's very open to the different types of practices people engage in,” she said.

(Story updated with quotes from Tom Barklage in paragraphs seven and eight.)

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