Bereavement leave: how to support grieving staff

    Bereavement leave

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    Bereavement leave: how to support grieving staff

    Unfortunately, most people will experience losing a loved one during the course of their career. Going through the death of a close family member or friend is always a difficult and stressful time. Having to make arrangements with an employer on top of dealing with funeral plans and other arrangements can add a lot of unnecessary stress.

    As an employer, you can make this time easier for your employees by taking a supportive approach and having a process in place for bereavement leave that makes these arrangements as easy as possible.

    Importantly, returning to work too soon after a bereavement can impact performance and mental health, so employers should act cautiously to ensure they are acting in a fair and supportive way.

    This article will explain everything you need to know about bereavement leave, including what it is, how long it is, whether it should be paid, and address some important points surrounding this area.

    What is bereavement leave?

    Bereavement leave, also called compassionate leave, is the time an employee can take off work after the loss of a loved one. Bereavement leave is used to allow the employee time and space to deal with the logistical demands of losing someone, such as arranging and attending the funeral, as well as allowing them to start to deal with their grief.

    There is in fact no specific right to ‘bereavement leave’ in UK law except in cases of parental bereavement. Instead, the general right to compassionate leave is derived from the Employment Rights Act 1996, which states that qualifying employees are entitled to time off work for ‘dependants’ in emergency situations. Dependants can include:

    • Their spouse or partner
    • Children
    • Close family members, which typically includes a grandparent, grandchild, sibling, aunt, uncle, niece or nephew

    This time is not legally required to be paid, although many employers do offer this as a gesture of support. You should refer to the relevant company policy and employment contract to check any terms that apply to taking time off for dependants or in the event of a bereavement.

    You should always keep in mind that each person’s familial relationships differ, so it’s always a good idea to hear each situation out and give the individual reasonable time off to deal with the loss.

    You should also be prepared for employees who ask for time off for close family friends, or even colleagues. Again, each of these situations are different, so some people will require more time off than others.

    You should also be very mindful of different religions and the different ceremonies that might take place. You could end up with a discrimination claim if you don’t allow your employee to take part in religious ceremonies.

    How long is bereavement leave?

    There is no statutory requirement for the length of bereavement leave except that it should be ‘reasonable’. Typically, most employers in the UK give 3-5 working days of paid bereavement leave for close family members like spouses, civil partners, partners, parents, siblings and children. 2-3 days is typical for less close family members like grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and step parents. One day is typical for other relatives or friends — this is simply enough time to attend the funeral.

    However, employers should bear in mind that people deal with loss in different ways and each person’s situation will be different. As such, it might be appropriate to give more paid leave if they require more time to make arrangements or if they are still grieving. However, this is a reasonable amount of time that you could include as a suggestion within the employee’s contract or in the employee handbook.

    You should also consider if the person needs to travel for a funeral and how far. The employee may even be open to working remotely if they require to travel far. However, you should not simply assume that this is the case and allow the employee the time they need to grieve.

    The only statutory requirement for the length of time for bereavement regards when someone has lost a child. We will discuss this in more detail below.

    People will rarely take advantage when it comes to bereavement leave. If the employee doesn’t feel ready to come back to work, you should consider extending their leave and allowing them to return when they are ready. Of course, the time off should be reasonable.

    If the employee is still not ready to return to work after a long time, it’s good to talk to them to discuss their options. You may be able to offer them a phased return or remote working.

    You could offer to pay for their counselling if you can or point them in the direction they can access bereavement support. Their health is also in your best interest, so make sure you do everything you can to help with the employee’s grieving process and offer support where you can.

    Is bereavement leave paid?

    There is no statutory requirement for bereavement leave to be paid. However, it’s very common for companies to pay for bereavement leave.

    Not paying employees could leave them forced to work for financial reasons. If the employee is working when they aren’t feeling ready to, they won’t be productive and could end up harbouring resentment toward their employer. It’s therefore highly recommended that you do offer some form of paid leave for your employees.

    How long you give someone paid bereavement leave is at your discretion. Just remember to be reasonable. It may seem like you are forcing someone to come back to work if you give them too little paid time off when they are going through the death of a loved one.

    However, you can offer further unpaid bereavement leave if the employee requires more time off. It’s perfectly acceptable to offer unpaid bereavement leave once the employee has had a good amount of paid leave.

    Contractual v statutory bereavement leave

    Many employees’ contracts will have a clause about bereavement leave, and it’s a good idea to include one. The clause should include the minimum number of days an employee can take.

    You should also include whether the leave is paid or unpaid.

    You may decide to go into more detail and lay out the length of paid bereavement leave for different situations. For example, how much time an employee is entitled to after the loss of an immediate family member and how much for a non-immediate family member. You could then also include how much unpaid leave an employee is entitled to.

    If you do include the bereavement leave clause in the contract, you must let the employee take this time as a minimum. If you don’t, the employee could make a claim for a contractual breach.

    In many situations, the best way to approach contractual bereavement leave is to put the minimum leave in the contract and allow more if necessary on a case-by-case basis. You also cannot force an employee to use bereavement leave if they don’t wish to do so.

    The only regulated bereavement leave is when an individual loses a child under the age of 18.

    There is no other law in the UK that entitles employees to bereavement leave. The Employment Rights Act 1996 does state that employees have the right to take time off to deal with emergency situations, which covers the death of a dependant. However, the amount of time allowed for these situations comes down to the employer. It is also at the employer’s discretion to decide how much paid time off an employee is entitled to.

    Not allowing any time off for the situations laid out in the 1996 act would mean you are in breach of the statute and you could have to pay a fine.

    Parental bereavement rules

    Different rules apply for employees who have suffered the loss of a child under the age of 18, or whose baby is stillborn after 24 weeks. In these circumstances, people are entitled to 2 weeks’ paid statutory bereavement leave.

    You may also decide to extend this in certain situations. Different people deal with loss in very different ways, so be empathetic to how each person is handling the loss.

    How to support grieving employees

    It’s important that you are sensitive when it comes to your employee’s bereavement leave. You need to be mindful of the fact that while some employees will be keen to delve back into work, some will need to take more time to grieve or they might have more things to take care of. Making arrangements following a death can be an extremely stressful time, especially if the employee was close to the person they lost, and if they have less help around them.

    Pressuring employees to return to work before they are ready can be counterproductive. If they’re not in the right headspace, they won’t be performing well and it will take them even longer to get back to a healthy state of mind. This will end up being detrimental for both you and your employee.

    Of course, in many situations, people will need more time off than this to deal with the arrangements and get back in the right headspace to get back to work. On the other hand, some people may only request time off for the funeral. Each situation is different, so it’s important to remember that you can’t have one rule for all cases of bereavement that your employees will go through. Flexibility is a key feature of your bereavement leave strategy.

    Bereavement leave can be paid or unpaid, but it’s very common for companies to offer paid bereavement leave. You can then decide to allow the individual to take unpaid leave if they need to take more time off than you agreed to.

    Giving employees generous bereavement leave lets the employees know that their employer cares about them. It also reduces any stress they might have about having to take time off following losing a loved one.

    Be empathetic

    People deal with grief in different ways. Some people like having the distraction of work, while others prefer to stay at home and surround themselves with loved ones.

    Company culture is extremely important, and poor culture in the workplace can lead to people leaving. Being an empathetic employer will increase the chances of the employee being loyal to you and it will improve your employees’ productivity.

    Also, if it is the first time that person has lost someone, you should be even more sensitive to that person’s situation. Pressuring people to come back to work when they aren’t ready won’t help anyone. The employee won’t be performing their job well if they aren’t well enough to work, which could be detrimental to your business.

    If the employee needs more time than you can afford, you could offer them unpaid leave, or if they have a doctor’s note, they could go on to statutory sick pay until they are ready to come back to work. Just make sure that the employee is aware of the options they have available.

    Communication is key

    Employers should always have a discussion with their employees about how much time off they need. You should also agree on a time for the employee to check in with you to confirm that they will be back on the agreed date, or if they need more time.

    It’s also a good idea to discuss how the employee wants to be communicated with at this time. Not everyone will be comfortable talking over the phone. Some people will prefer to text, or some might prefer emails. Also, you should ask if there are any times that you shouldn’t try to contact them. For example, you should also ask when the funeral is so that you don’t disturb them on that day

    Make sure your employees know what they need to do

    Your employees should be aware of what they need to do or who they should speak to when they receive the news of their loved one. They should be aware of the minimum bereavement leave they are entitled to in their contract, but make sure they’re aware of who they need to talk to if they require more time off.

    Be careful not to have too many steps in place that would be overwhelming for the employee. It should be a simple yet thorough process.

    A good place to include information regarding bereavement is within the employee handbook.

    Be flexible

    It’s important to be flexible with your bereavement process. Since it would be impossible to have one rule that suits all, you need to be open to the idea that you will have to change your bereavement policy on a case-by-case basis.

    For example, the amount of time you allow a person who has lost their child will be very different from the amount of time you would give someone who has lost their great aunt. This is why communication is important. Let the employee tell you how much time they need and give them a reasonable amount of bereavement leave.

    Bereavement leave FAQs

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    Legal disclaimer

    The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

    Author

    Gill Laing is a qualified Legal Researcher & Analyst with niche specialisms in Law, Tax, Human Resources, Immigration & Employment Law.

    Gill is a Multiple Business Owner and the Managing Director of Prof Services - a Marketing & Content Agency for the Professional Services Sector.

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