A Guide to Bereavement & Compassionate Leave

Craig Hynd |


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Sadly, almost everyone will experience the loss of a person close to them during their career. This means that there is a good chance that they will request some time off in order to give themselves time to recuperate, mourn, and return to work in the right frame of mind.

Bereavement leave – also known as compassionate leave – is the period of time off work an employee is given by their employer after the death of a family member. This time can be used to arrange or attend a funeral or for mourning.

The result of this is that the employee may be off work for an indefinite period, and often at short notice. You – as an employer – have to cover their absence and you may not know when they will return to work.

It is important to keep in mind that this topic is often a very difficult one for businesses to handle, especially because everyone copes differently to the loss of a loved one.

What does the law say on bereavement leave entitlement?

Let’s get this clear straight off the bat: there is currently no legal right to bereavement leave in the UK, paid or unpaid.

Employees can take a ‘reasonable’ period of time off work for emergency situations relating to dependants (which includes if a dependant dies). However, this doesn’t cover time off to mourn. A dependant is defined as a spouse, partner, child, or a parent or other individual that the employee provides care for.

Even though there isn’t currently anything in law that gives employees the right to compassionate leave, the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill received Royal Assent on 13 September 2018. This new law creates a legal obligation on employers to provide two weeks’ leave for bereaved parents who lose a child or suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy. The law will come into force in 2020.

Yet this still doesn’t solve the issue of when an employee suffers a loss of someone who is not considered a dependant. This is why your company – if it doesn’t already – should have a robust bereavement policy in place.

Why your business should have a compassionate leave policy

The majority of businesses and organisations will have their own compassionate leave policy as a contractual entitlement, as it is considered good practice and is, in our opinion, essential to cultivating a positive company culture.

It’s the right thing to do to allow employees to know where they stand if they suffer a loss of someone close to them.

Your company can choose whether the compassionate leave given is paid or unpaid, but we would suggest it’s best if you pay your employees during their absence.

We write often about the importance of cultivating a positive company culture, and this is a way to demonstrate to employees that your company cares about their welfare and that it’s not all about the bottom line. Everyone needs some time to mourn and return to work in a stable state of mind.

It may be easy to take a hard line with employees and get them back into the office ASAP, but this approach doesn’t take into consideration long-term consequences.

What if the employee in question comes back and performs poorly, or they quit their job soon after because they weren’t treated fairly?

These unintended consequences from not having a robust and generous bereavement leave policy means it’s imperative that your company has one in place.

Businesses everywhere should be trying to build loyalty and passion for the company brand. One of the key ways to do this is to treat your employees like you would expect to be treated yourself, and having a detailed and fair bereavement leave policy is one significant way to achieve this.

What should your bereavement leave policy look like?

Usually bereavement leave in the UK is around three to five days for employees who suffer the loss of an immediate family member, such as a spouse, partner, siblings, children, and parents.

This drops to around two or three days for grandparents, grandchildren, and step parents.

Your company’s policy should be written into employees’ contracts and be clearly stated in the company handbook. This ensures that all employees know what they’re entitled to if the worst should happen. This also means that managers know exactly what to do when bereavement situations arise.

However, it’s also important be flexible. Everyone is different. Some people take a long time to mourn and recover from a loss, whilst others will feel ready to return to work pretty quickly.

The death of a close friend, or even a pet, can also be a crushing blow to many. Your policy should have the ability to adapt to different people and different situations.

For example, your company should encourage managers to speak one-to-one with affected employees to agree a best blueprint for the way forward. This could involve paid time off, unpaid time off, or combined with the option of a phased return to work. This method will enable your company to have an individualised and customised approach, ensuring that each unique case is dealt with appropriately and with fairness and respect.

If your company doesn’t do this, or doesn’t offer much time off for bereavements, then it’s time to consider what impact this will have on productivity and employee loyalty. Take a long-term view.

How HR software can help

Good HR software will allow you to enable employees to request time off for compassionate leave via self-service, which you will then be able to approve or deny. You can also, if you wish, allow requests to be automatically approved.

Your HR system should allow you to define whether compassionate leave is paid or unpaid, and whether it should be included in Bradford Factor calculations.

If the employee is unable to complete the request themselves for whatever reason, your HR software should give you the ability to add records to the system.

This functionality means that HR users and managers can see – at a glance – who is off on compassionate/bereavement leave and when they are expected to return to work, meaning effective cover can be arranged.

All relevant information regarding the absence is recorded and stored on the platform, which can be referred to again in the future if needed. This also means you can produce detailed reports from the bereavement leave data.

An important point to note here is to ensure that your chosen HR software has extensive Permission Set functionality. Permission Sets gives you the ability to only show sensitive information, such as bereavement leave details, to the relevant people. Those who don't need to see the information shouldn't have access.

For advice on how intelligent HR tech can help your organisation to properly set up and manage compassionate leave, please get in touch with us. We're happy to help.

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