Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has been speaking about her new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, in which she describes the effect that the sudden death of her husband Dave Goldberg in 2015 had on her leadership outlook.

In February, Facebook announced – at Sandberg’s insistence – a number of key changes to its employee-leave policy, including the addition of 10 days’ bereavement leave for an extended-family death and 20 days for an immediate-family death. The revamped policy also provided six weeks of paid leave during any 12-month period in which an employee may be required to care for a sick family member.

The measures emerged as exceptions at a time when firms’ attitudes to challenging family circumstances are best described as callous. In November last year, reports indicated that one fifth of British cancer patients face workplace discrimination from their managers. Flash forward to March this year, and Cancer Research UK revealed that business leaders still lack awareness of how best to communicate with stricken staff. And only last month, reports showed that the picture in the US is scarcely any better – with cancer sufferers battling workplace discrimination, despite key legal amendments that were designed to stamp it out.

What can bosses do to ensure that people struggling with already stressful scenarios are treated with appropriate levels of compassion? And how will this benefit their organisations in the long run?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “Given the expenses associated with replacing an employee, the economic case for deploying compassionate leave as a talent-retention strategy is hugely compelling. As our report from last year Beyond the Honeymoon indicated, it costs £36,000 to replace someone – and that comprises only the costs you can quantify and identify. The knowledge and goodwill that departing staff take with them, plus their understanding of – and special relationships with – customers and clients, are harder to value. Nonetheless, they represent a significant loss.

“With all that in mind, if you offset the short-term inconveniences or costs of bringing in a replacement, or arranging some compassionate leave, against the far greater cost of losing those people entirely, then it’s clearly a worthwhile investment. Never mind the sort of loyalty premiums that such employment practices may generate.”

On the question of how to encourage managers and leaders to be more compassionate, James adds, “the most important step is to role-model those behaviours. If you see leaders in your organisations behaving compassionately – understanding and supporting people who are on leave, and ensuring that if their circumstances are discussed in their presence, it’s done so only in positive, compassionate ways – then position those individuals as exemplars. That’s how you’ll get the behaviours you want.

“If you have managers who lack compassion and empathy, either send them on intensive training courses – or get rid of them. Because that isn’t what you want. You want people who are socially sensitive, who are able to work with others and who are, above all, capable of empathising.”

Download the Institute’s full report Beyond the Honeymoon: Keeping new employees from the exits here

Image of Sheryl Sandberg courtesy of JStone, via Shutterstock