When my mother died in 2015, I was entitled to three days of bereavement leave from my employer. That didn’t even get me to her funeral, but it remains typical in U.S. workplaces even as companies have been faced with grieving employees as never before. Now, at least, many employers are beginning to grasp the importance of looking out for workers’ mental health.

The sheer scale of American deaths during the pandemic is difficult to grasp. More than 827,000 dead from covid-19. On Dec. 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued finalized data showing that the U.S. death rate spiked 17 percent in 2020 and Americans’ life expectancy dropped by nearly two years, the largest one-year decline since World War II.

A March 2021 survey by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 1 in 5 Americans said they had lost a relative or close friend to covid.

“If you are not a kinder, gentler company right now, you are going to be in trouble,” says Ti Adelaide Martin, co-proprietor of Commander’s Palace restaurant in New Orleans, whom I met when I interviewed her for an upcoming book.

Of course, most bosses have experience dealing with the family tragedies of individual workers, responding by sending flowers from the department, and attending wakes and funerals.

But beyond that, employees long were expected to find their own ways of handling sadness, preferably on their own time, given that they are paid to work, not weep. Not long after I lost my mother, I once hid in a public radio station ladies’ room for a five-minute cry.

There appears to be something especially hard about covid-triggered grief amid a pandemic that has kept the world in a perpetual state of mourning. “Prolonged grief disorder,” explored by Scientific American, can be exacerbated by the drumbeat of covid reminders — the arrival of virus variants, renewed school shutdowns and other public health measures many thought were finished.

“If we don’t find ways to bring attention to the emotional suffering that people are coping with right now, it will turn into more serious problems,” Vickie Mays, a professor of health policy and management at the University of California at Los Angeles, told the journal.

Fortunately, a number of companies appear to be stepping up, whether from compassion or to protect their bottom lines, or both.

The Harvard Business Review says this is “a new era for mental health at work,” a sharp contrast to pre-pandemic days of 2019, when employers were just starting to grasp the importance of emotional challenges faced by workers.

In New Orleans, Martin has dealt with several crises over the course of two decades at her restaurant — a chef’s death from cancer, an employee who died in a fire, the devastation to New Orleans residents from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In August, arriving amid the pandemic, Hurricane Ida visited more misery on New Orleans.

Martin says a manager’s challenge is twofold: First to show they’re aware of employees’ feelings; second, to demonstrate that “there is light at the end of the tunnel and a path to it.”

She adds, “People are never going to forget how you treated them in these very hard moments.”

While their elders may have gained fortitude by gritting their way through hard times and personal losses in the past, younger employees may lack the emotional tools to deal with what’s going on now.

Martin sees some benefit in the collective grieving that’s going on in many workplaces. She has gone to the extent of tracking down a priest, gathering her employees in a courtyard and urging them to share their feelings with the cleric.

“It’s almost helpful when it’s the entire group,” Martin says. And jobs can be a refuge for employees who are struggling — a fact that managers should recognize, she says, and understand that “I might not get your very best work here for a time, and I have to be sensitive to that.”

It can take a herculean effort to stay focused when sadness seems to be everywhere. Given how tenuous the world has become, an effort to work while grieving may spell the difference between a business going on, or giving up.

As for paid bereavement leave, it’s worth considering that in 2017 even perennially criticized Facebook instituted a policy of allowing up 20 days to mourn the death of an immediate family member.

“We need public policies that make it easier for people to care for their children and aging parents and for families to mourn and heal after loss,” wrote Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, whose husband, Dave Goldberg, died in 2015.

Amid covid, companies need to heed her message that such policies can “improve their bottom line by increasing the loyalty and performance of their workforce.” Also, it’s just the right thing to do.