The Facebook COO’s new book works through adversity by finding ‘Option B’
Big girls do cry.
The queen of leaning in herself, Sheryl Sandberg, has given us permission to grieve. The Facebook COO has drawn from personal tragedy – the sudden 2015 death of her husband Dave Goldberg – to champion bereavement leave for workers. Her new book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” out April 24 offers a lifeline to those fumbling in the darkness of their despair, as well as a guideline for how colleagues and friends can help them.
My mom passed away a year ago this month, and I’m still lost in the void. My mother’s death wasn’t as sudden as Sandberg’s husband’s death; lung cancer had been stealing her away from us for more than a year. But then again, losing someone is always sudden. Mom had been doing laundry and drinking Bailey’s just the month before; how could she be gone? Yet I foolishly thought I would need just a week off from work for the funeral and to cry it out.
Sandberg reveals that her return to work wasn’t her finest hour. In fact, she fell asleep in a meeting, misidentified a colleague and left early to pick up her kids from school. And guess what? That was O.K. “Mark [Zuckerberg] said, ‘Take the time off you need,’” Sandberg explains in her Time cover story this week.
Bosses everywhere take note: You have no idea how much a vote of confidence like that can help a grieving employee’s self esteem.
Like Sandberg, I too needed more than five business days to reconcile losing my mom, who’d been as essential to my life as water or air, for more than three decades. We all do. But most U.S. employees get an average of just four days bereavement leave for a spouse or a child, and only three for a domestic partner, foster child, grandchild, parent, sibling or grandparent, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey. Some minimum-wage earners may not even get that.
Three days to get over losing my mother. Are you kidding me? I’m grateful my editor let me take a second week off, using a mix of my sick days and vacation time. And let’s be honest: I’m an excellent worker, but I would have been useless if I’d punched in sooner. I couldn’t get out of bed. I lived in jogging pants. My eyes were swollen shut from crying. I suffered nightmares. I was broken, and bouncing back to work too soon was not going to fix it.
That’s not weakness; that’s being human. A 2012 Grief Index study found that 85% of managers confessed their decision-making was “very poor” to “fair” in the weeks or months following a grief incident. And 90% of people in blue collar and physical jobs reported a much higher rate of physical injuries following a major loss because they couldn’t concentrate.
And taking even just those five extra days off to burrow under the covers, write in my journal or go for long walks to process what the hell had just happened to my family was exactly what my spirit needed. When I did return to the newsroom, I was in a headspace where conducting interviews and filing copy on deadline were welcome distractions. I got so engrossed in assignments that I could even go entire minutes without feeling like breaking down.
Giving employees time off in the short-term pays off in the long run. “When you take the time to fully invest in yourself, to absorb what just happened and acknowledge how you feel about it, it lets you really process it,” explains Allison Gilbert, grief expert and author of “Passed and Present.”
“So when you come back to work, you’re able to focus more on the tasks at hand,” she adds, citing the classic advice of putting your own oxygen mask on first before you help your child with hers. “Because you’ve already attended to yourself and what you need, when you go back to work, you’re able to focus on your client or your colleagues’ needs.”
Sandberg gets it, too well. So she announced in February that Facebook employees will now get a generous 20 days of bereavement leave in the wake of a family member’s death. “Amid the nightmare of Dave’s death when my kids needed me more than ever, I was grateful every day to work for a company that provides bereavement leave and flexibility. I needed both to start my recovery,” she wrote on Facebook.
“What Sheryl Sandberg is doing for the workplace in the aspects of grief and healing is nothing short of a game-changer. She’s giving us a new way of tackling a difficult issue in the workplace,” says Gilbert. “She’s saying it’s O.K. to feel like you need this time off, and it’s not odd or strange. It should be validated, and she’s giving individuals and companies permission to go there.”
Here’s hoping other employers hop on the bereavement-leave bandwagon. Because the bereaved do want to come back to work and get back to normal. We just need a little time.
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