The Case For Work-Death Balance

We don’t like to talk about death, especially at work. That needs to change.

The Case For Work-Death Balance
[Photo: Flickr user Jeroen Moes]

The day that Fast Company offered me a job was the same day that I found out my mother was dying. At the time, I didn’t know she was dying, but knew I would need to spend time away from a job I hadn’t even started. Getting time off to deal with my mom, who had fallen into a coma because of a freak accident, however, was not a sure thing. The same law that covers maternity leave covers sick parent, child, and spouse leave, the Family Medical Leave Act, and it only kicks in once an employee has worked at an organization for a year.


Luckily, my employer was generous, letting me work remotely every few weeks. I also took two weeks of paid leave just before and after she passed away five months later, in February. None of that encroached on my much-needed vacation days, either.

I hesitated to start this story with my own experience, until I realized that’s part of the problem: We don’t talk candidly about death and work. But that messy, often protracted and inevitable process reaches into all facets of life, including jobs. Most people don’t have it as good as I did. They have to worry about a paycheck, on top of taking care of someone on the verge of death, added stresses that will both affect work and life. And unless we get better at dealing with death itself, the situation isn’t likely to improve any time soon.

For all the think pieces devoted to maternity and paternity leave, not to mention all the other work-life balance points of interest, death issues don’t come up that much. “Focusing on end of life care is an aspect that tends not to get talked about,” Sarah Jane Glynn, the associate director of Women’s Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress told Fast Company. It’s true, we don’t like to discuss dying. It’s uncomfortable. People don’t know how to react or what to say, so we don’t say anything at all. I’m certainly guilty of avoiding the topic; some of my coworkers will learn of my mom’s death for the first time through this article.

“My mom was sick for over a year before she died, and it was a complicated illness,” said Derek Thompson, a writer for The Atlantic, who lost his mom to cancer last year. “Even a terminal disease like hers wasn’t a clean devolution, it was several terrible months, followed by several wonderful miraculous months, then a bad month, then a moment of hope, then not.” Throughout the process he estimates he took several weeks off from work. Like me, Derek works for a generous employer (also my former employer) that told him to take as much paid time off as he needed. He never worried about compromising his job or not getting a paycheck.


That situation is rare. Only 12% of workers have access to paid death leave through their employers, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The FMLA only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid, job protected leave, and only about 60% of workers in the private sector have access to that. Again, it takes a year to kick in and part-time and contract workers don’t have access to those protections. The law also only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees.

With millennials about to become the largest percentage of the workforce in 2015, the issue will affect even more of the working population as their boomer parents age. Within the next 25 years, the number of adults 65 and older is expected to double, and a big chunk of the working population will have to take care of them.

So what do we do? Like all life events, dealing with death and work simultaneously is about balance.

First off, the common advice to avoid work altogether when grieving or caring for a loved one is often impossible—and not always ideal. At times, a job is the perfect distraction. “The work-death-life balance sort of appeared because it was frankly too overwhelming to focus on the thing itself,” said Thompson.


As a new hire, I felt the pressure to perform, despite my humane bosses telling me not to worry about it. But it was okay to worry about it. Work kept my brain occupied in between hospital visiting hours. It also alleviated my guilt for taking a paycheck while doing less work. My brother Jeremy, who also had a kind and understanding employer, took off around three weeks, he estimates. “I volunteered to max out my vacation days,” he said. “They told me not to worry about it one bit. I wanted to be as conscientious as I could of the company and my colleagues. I didn’t want to be a burden and I didn’t want to make any headaches for anybody.”

Things don’t always go that well. Writing in The Atlantic, Rosanna Fay describes her struggle to balance caring for her ailing parents while working.

I’d shut the door to my office and try to talk my mom off one ledge or another. In extreme cases, I’d find myself on yet another very expensive last-minute flight. To minimize the impact on my colleagues I always did my best to work from my parents’ home…. One evening I broke down sobbing as I banged on my eight-pound laptop in the confines of my mother’s quilting studio.

Later, she describes coming back to work after taking time off for her mother’s death to a job with less responsibilities. “This, I thought, is what a woman who returns from maternity leave goes through—coming back to a job that had shifted, and to perceptions that motherhood had changed her in ways that made her a less valuable member of the team,” she writes. Dealing with sick parents had irreparably hurt her career.

On the other side of things, focusing too much on work can also hinder the grieving process. Steven Zarit, a therapist I spoke with, noted that everyone has different grieving styles, but that having the time to say goodbye makes things easier after a person has passed. If you’re too busy working and dealing with the practical aspects of death—another time-consuming task—you might not have time to deal with the emotional side of things.

However, like the work-life balance, maintaining a work-death balance is a luxury for much of the population. Most people simply can’t afford to take time off. The most common jobs in America—salespeople, cashiers, and fast-food workers—don’t offer the same flexibility as my writing-on-the-Internet job, nor the same wages.

“People don’t just die anymore,” said Tom Nides, a vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, and an advocate for paid family leave. “I don’t mean that in a cynical sort of way, it’s a long, drawn-out process in most cases. It’s not only emotionally tragic, it’s really expensive.” Without a financial cushion, workers who qualify for the 12 weeks of paycheckless time can’t forgo a salary for three months.


Nides, a former United States Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, worked with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro on the FAMILY Act, proposed legislation for paid family leave. The bill would guarantee qualifying employees two-thirds of their salary for up to 12 weeks. Its funded through a social insurance fund, like social security. Workers would pay .02 percent of wages and employers would match. Another bill, The Strong Families Act, incentivizes employers to opt into offering four weeks of paid leave in exchange for a tax credit.

Unfortunately, odds are low that either bill will pass any time soon.

Some argue that small businesses will be more crippled by an additional social insurance mandate than a large company, like Morgan Stanley, which Nides admits. And of course, there is a limit to how much a company can afford to pay for an employee to not work. The two proposed policies are just the beginnings of conversations.

“These are the kinds of things that improve quality of life and aren’t going to put companies out of business,” David Bolotsky, the CEO of online retailer UncommonGoods said. “It could be life-changing for the individual that is able to be paid for that time off at a time of crisis and it’s not going to have that profound an impact on the company.” The U.S. falls behind every single other developed nation when it comes to paid family leave. Advocates also say that policies increase employee retention. After spending the first six months of the first year of a job pretty much half working, I feel indebted to Fast Company.

Helping workers finding a work-death balance also leads to better productivity. It sounds glib, but if someone can compartmentalize dying and life, they can work at work, instead of worrying. “I wanted to fold that cancer world like a piece of paper over and over until it was as small as it could be and tuck it behind some corner of my brain and get on with life,” said Thompson.

“My hope is that employers recognize the truth about death and grief, which is that death is messy and grief is messier, and everybody does it differently,” he added. “An ideal policy would allow for a temporary period of reasonable flexibility to honor the messiness of the experience.”

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news