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Bereavement and Compassionate leave: what is the right thing to do?

Dying Matters and its coalition members host an Awareness Week to place the importance of us all talking about dying, death and bereavement to the forefront. As such, we decided to look at bereavement and compassionate leave in the workplace.

In February 2017 Facebook announced it would be allowing employees to take up to 20 days off with pay to mourn the death of an immediate family member. The move has sparked huge debate as to what is the right thing to do and how much time off should be given to employees in times of bereavement. 

What is bereavement?

The word ‘bereavement’ is used to describe the period of grief and mourning we go through after someone close to us dies. Bereavement is the time we spend adjusting to loss. There is no standard time limit and there is no right or wrong way to feel during the bereavement period – everyone must learn to cope in their own way.

When someone you care about suddenly leaves your life, it’s not a case of taking time out to recover. Bereavement is about trying to accept what happened and learning to adjust to life without that person. While you try to get along as best you can you will also be finding a place to keep their memory alive.

Grief, although normal, can manifest in a huge range of unexpected ways. Some people get angry, some withdraw further into themselves and some  become completely numb. Sometimes, grief can turn into something more serious – like depression.

Coping with grief

Many people compare their grief to waves rolling onto a beach. Sometimes those waves are calm and gentle. Other times they are so big and powerful that they knock you off your feet completely.

Sometimes, the wave of grief can be so powerful that it leads to:

  • Not wanting or feeling able to get out of bed.
  • Neglecting yourself – not taking care of your hygiene or appearance.
  • Not eating properly.
  • The feeling that you can’t carry on living without the person you’ve lost.
  • Not feeling able to go to work.
  • Taking your feelings out on other people.

All of these reactions are normal parts of bereavement. If they go on for a very long time some extra help from a bereavement counsellor or medical practitioner may be needed.

Taking time off work for a bereavement

All employees are entitled to ‘time off for dependants’. This is a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to deal with unforeseen matters and emergencies involving a dependant, including leave to arrange or attend a funeral. A ‘dependant’ could be a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent or someone who depends on that person for care, for example, an elderly neighbour.

Some employers may pay for the employee to take time off to look after a dependant but they do not have to do so. An employee should check their contract and the Company handbook to determine if the Company will pay them time off for dependants or not. If there is no policy in place, an employer may use their discretion or rely upon the statutory position i.e. a reasonable amount of unpaid time off.

But what if the deceased is not a dependant?

If the deceased is not a dependant then your employer may allow you time off for ‘compassionate leave’. This can be paid or unpaid leave. Some employers will have a policy on compassionate leave which employees would find in their contracts or company handbooks.

If there is no policy in place, it is up to employers to use their discretion, being as reasonable and as consistent as possible. Managers will have to keep an eye on what the custom and practice has been in the past and apply precedents fairly and consistently. Even so, employees cannot expect to be granted leave automatically. When leave isn’t granted, they may have to use their holiday allowance.

Advantages of having a Compassionate leave policy

  1. Offering paid compassionate bereavement leave can help increase employee loyalty and performance;
  2. It can be a major support to employees and have a long-term positive impact on their relationship with the Company;
  3. It is also helpful for managers, who can rely upon the policy and spares them having to assess the seriousness of the situation themselves;
  4. It reduces the risk of grievances and complaints; and
  5. It reduces the risk of inconsistent treatment and potentially discrimination claims.

Disadvantages of having a Compassionate leave policy

  1. 1 or 2 days off paid or unpaid leave may not be sufficient. Some individuals cope better with grief than others. Whilst for some returning to work can be a positive distraction and a chance to regain routine for some they may feel pressured to return to work before they are ready which can lead to performance issues, can cause a delay in the grievance process which can lead to health issues and therefore sickness absence, it could also lead to a disgruntled worker.
  2. Having a one size fits all policy may not work for all employees. Policies should be flexible to accommodate each individual’s circumstances. Employers should ensure their policy has a caveat that the Directors can use their discretion to allow additional time depending on the circumstances. For example, an employee who has suddenly lost their partner and child as a result of a tragic freak accident may require additional time and a phased return to work to assist them to cope.

What is the average number of days granted for compassionate leave?

According to XpertHR and CIPD research the average number of days granted for compassionate leave is 5.

Does compassionate leave tend to be paid?

XpertHR’s research indicates that the majority is paid. Almost 60% of XpertHR’s respondents confirmed that they offered paid compassionate leave whilst 37.7% said it was a combination of paid and unpaid.

Do you need a Compassionate leave policy? We can provide a template policy or assist you to produce a Compassionate leave policy. For a template or advice and assistance please do not hesitate to contact us.

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