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How Do Compassionate Leave and bereavement leave work?

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It's the type of leave you hope never to take. But such is the nature of life (and death), you'll more than likely need some time off at some point for a bereavement or serous illness within your family or friend group.

But what counts as compassionate or bereavement leave? Is it paid or not? How long can you take off? And how exactly is it defined? We’ll answer these questions below, in the context of employment within the UK.

What is compassionate leave?

Compassionate leave is a form of absence from work that's taken when someone unexpectedly suffers an upsetting event. Usually, this is the death of a close relative. But it’s not just for the death of a dependent or loved one; it might also include dealing with serious illness, or going through a traumatic event like being the victim of a crime.

Compassionate leave may need to be taken at short notice, without the employer having time to prepare for the loss in staffing, and maybe without a set end point for the employee’s return to work.

Depend on timing, colleagues may be available to cover for the absence, or it could cause major disruption. There's not really any way to plan for it, it's just one of those things. The most important part is that as an employer (and human being) you show compassion: give someone the time off they need, allow them the space to absorb, reflect, and recover. We’re talking about a very small percentage of staff absence. This is not the time to start looking through their employment contract.

What’s the difference between bereavement leave and compassionate leave?

While some companies do use the terms interchangeably, they are different things. Bereavement leave is generally used when a close family member passes away. Compassionate leave is more general: it can be used for any upsetting event or emergency situation that someone is going through. It’s sometimes recorded as “time off work for family reasons”.

Examples of compassionate leave

As mentioned, bereavement leave is quite simple to understand: it’s used for the death of a close relative. But as compassionate leave covers a wider scope, it’s worth understanding what it might include. Here are a few examples of why someone might take special leave for compassionate reasons:

  • Life-threatening injury or illness of a relative or dependent
  • The death of a close relative or dependent
  • Last-minute and unavoidable childcare emergencies
  • Caring for a family member with a serious illness or injury

What are company policies on compassionate & bereavement leave?

Not all companies have a policy on compassionate leave - there's no legislation that says they have to do so. But employees in the UK do have the right to take "a reasonable amount of time" off to deal with an emergency involving a dependent (a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who depends on them for care).

It's up to the employer to decide what's reasonable and what isn't - which can be a difficult decision to make, especially when emotions are running high.

Can you take compassionate leave for issues with grandparents?

As we’ve explored above, this entirely depends on company policy with your employer. In most cases though, the answer should be yes.

Any reasonable organization will rightly see grandparents as immediate family. So if they’re going through a serious illness or have passed away, you should be able to take compassionate leave for grandparents.

Can you take compassionate leave for issues with a pet?

This one’s a bit less clear. Again, it totally depends on company policy. In the UK, there’s no legal requirement that grants you special leave for a pet falling ill or passing away.

Losing a pet, or seeing them in ill health, can certainly take an emotional toll on their owner. For many people, this would impact their ability to work, so it’s probably wise to grant them a day or two away from work on compassionate grounds.

We’ve seen some cases of ‘pet bereavement leave’ being offered as a perk of a job. It could be part of an overall ‘paternity leave’ policy, which is a broader way of dealing with pets and their effect on working life.

What counts as an appropriate pet, though? It’s easy to feel sympathy for the owner of an adorable golden retriever passing away. But what about a tarantula? A hamster, maybe? A single goldfish in a tank full of them? As an employer, the line is up to you to decide.

What about Statutory Parental Bereavement Leave?

Statutory Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay is a new employment right that came into effect in April 2020. It was introduced by the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018.

This new right gives an entitlement to paid leave for any qualifying parent who loses a child under the age of 18 or suffers a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy. If you take this form of leave, your employment rights are protected, and you’ll be able to take it from the first date of your employment.

However, you’ll only be eligible to have it as paid leave under certain circumstances. Statutory Parental Bereavement Pay, like other statutory pay allowances, requires you to meet eligibility criteria both as a parent and an employee (being continually employed by them for 26 weeks). Otherwise it’ll be unpaid leave.

As a parental couple, you’re entitled to two weeks of bereavement leave. It’s shared just like regular parental leave, so you can either take two weeks together, two separate weeks, or a single week.

If your employer has their own bereavement leave policy, they might grant a longer compassionate leave entitlement. In certain cases, like after the death of a child or stillborn birth, you might have such a difficult time that it’s extended upon request.

How employers should deal with compassionate & bereavement leave

If you're an employer reading this then we'd urge you to be lenient, be a supportive employer, and show compassion. Try and empathies with the employee; put yourself in their shoes. You want to give them enough time to deal with and recover from the situation. Forcing someone back to work when they’re going through family emergencies like this isn't going to help anyone.

If you’re an employee then try to be up-front and honest with your employer. Explain the situation, its impact on you, how you’re feeling, and let them know if you think you need additional time.

How most companies give compassionate / bereavement leave allowance

In our experience, companies don't usually have a set amount of time for compassionate leave per employee. The unique circumstances of each absence and their irregular frequency don't lend themselves to tightly structured and consistently applied policies.

That said, it's about tone and intention. If your compassionate leave policy is generous, has flexibility and discretion, and focuses on showing employees support during hard times, then yes, you're on the right track. If all you want to do is fix a given number of days per employee per year then no – please – that's not compassion.

On the low end of the scale, I've heard of companies not allowing any form of compassionate leave. They just expect people to take unpaid time off, sick leave due to bereavement or paid time off from their annual leave allowance – which is bad form, even for the most ruthless corporates. Even at the risk of losing a job, if I heard any bad news about my family, I'd be out of the office in an instant. And if I was treated without compassion during such a traumatic time, I'd most likely be looking for a new job straight away.

Facebook/Meta, for all their faults, seem to have set a good example on bereavement leave. Their COO Sheryl Sandberg, who had been through a major bereavement herself, announced their policy in 2015 of 20 days paid compassionate leave if an immediate family member dies, 10 days for an extended family member, and 6 weeks to care for an ill relative.

Policies like these aren't just the right thing to do, they're also likely to increase staff loyalty and contribute to a healthy company culture.

Preparing for potential compassionate leave scenarios

There are a few additional circumstances that might prove a challenge. You might want to consider scenarios like these:

  • What happens when someone is taking an unusually long time off work after a bereavement?
  • If a bereavement causes mental health/ longer term issues which causes them to miss work, when does compassionate leave end and sickness start?
  • What happens if someone suffers a bereavement, but decides to return to work too soon, and their performance suffers as a result?
  • Someone’s elderly neighbor or close friend is seriously ill – will their line manager be sympathetic enough to grant them leave?
  • What happens when someone needs to make care arrangements or funeral arrangements – is that worthy of compassionate leave? If your employee is a carer or civil partner to someone who dies, you’ll have to know what their entitlements and responsibilities are.

While these scenarios aren't nice to think about, they’re worth being prepared for. As with anything ambiguous like this, you’ll have to judge it on a case-by-case basis, as you can’t cover every single eventuality in the policies in your employee handbook.

We’d recommend talking through plans with senior management and HR if it hasn't already been done. The need for bereavement leave can come out of nowhere, and a chaotic reaction won't help anybody.

As always with HR issues, it's a great idea to consult ACAS, and their Bereavement in the Workplace guide is a good starting point. It's got some realistic case studies, which can be quite harrowing, but they'll help prepare you well. (ACAS is brill if you’re in England, Scotland or Wales, and if you’re in Northern Ireland, head to the Labor Relations Agency.)

In summary: it’s a part of life

Companies need to accept and be prepared for the eventuality of bereavement & compassionate leave. Sooner or later someone is going to need it. So think about it, consider it, plan for it, get some agreement about how to handle it, maybe draft a policy if you think it needs one.

You’ll need to remember employees do have a statutory right to leave in UK employment law. In fact, the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives the legal right for time off work for dependents, which can be used in the event of a child’s death or other family member's death (although it doesn’t specifically call it compassionate leave).

It's a nuanced and complex subject, and many situations require astute judgement. Decisions on what's worthy of compassionate leave need to stay realistic, to preserve the integrity of the system and keep things fair for everyone.

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