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What is bereavement leave?

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The last few months have made employers consider many situations regarding their policies and how they manage and support their employees during difficult times, including during bereavement.  Bereavement leave is one way employers can support an employee who is mourning the loss of a loved one. However, it can also be a difficult area for employers to navigate. As an employer you may find yourself caught between wanting to show compassion for your employee, while still needing to plan for the needs of your business. Our Employment Law team discusses the bereavement leave obligations employers have towards their employees and provides some guidance for how employers can support employees who may need to take bereavement leave.

What is the difference between bereavement leave and compassionate leave?

Bereavement leave and compassionate leave are similar concepts.  Bereavement leave is when an employee takes time off work due to the death of a loved one, while compassionate leave usually applies to a wider set of circumstances such as taking time off work to care for a sick relative, or deal with a personal trauma.

What are my legal obligations to employees regarding bereavement leave?

Employees have a statutory right to parental bereavement leave as of 6 April 2020.  Statutory parental bereavement leave entitles employees to take two weeks’ leave in the following circumstances:

  • where the death of a child under 18 occurs,
  • a child is still born from 24 weeks of pregnancy.

All employees are entitled to statutory parental bereavement leave regardless of their length of service.  However, an employee with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service and normal weekly earnings of at least the lower earnings limit will also be entitled to Statutory Parental Bereavement Pay (SPBP).  The lower earnings limit and the rate of SPBP is set by the Government each year.

Employees may take parental bereavement leave within 56 weeks of the death of their child and they may take the leave as one block of two weeks or two separate blocks of one week each.  This is the only statutory entitlement that an employee may have to any form of bereavement or compassionate leave.  As their employer, you can decide to offer much more wide ranging forms of bereavement or compassionate leave to your staff if you wish.

Employees also have a statutory right to take a “reasonable” amount of unpaid time off work to take “necessary” action to deal with particular situations affecting their dependants, covering a variety of situations including the death of a dependant.  This covers the logistical matters which arise as a result of a death, such as arranging and attending a funeral and, where appropriate, applying for probate and meeting with probate officers.  It is not a right to compassionate leave however.  The time an employee is allowed to take off as a result of this statutory right should be ‘reasonable’; there is no specific length of time set out in the legislation.  There is also no requirement that the time off be paid, though you can provide contractual pay if you wish.

The benefits to providing bereavement leave

You may want to provide some form of bereavement leave to all employees who experience the death of someone close to them.  Every person deals with death differently, but employees who are mourning the loss of a loved one are unlikely to be in the best frame of mind for work.  Understandably, they will be distracted, sleep deprived, angry, or stressed.  Depending on the type of job they do, this could also make the employee a risk to workplace health and safety.

Employees who are given enough time to process their grief are more likely to be in a better state of mind when they do return to work.  Knowing they have an employer that cares about their mental wellbeing may also create a more positive work environment.

If you do not already have one, you should consider creating a bereavement leave policy and a compassionate leave policy.  When developing the policies the following should be considered:

  • How employees request the leave
  • Under which circumstances leave may be granted
  • How long the leave will be
  • Whether the leave will be paid
  • A process for returning to work.

The policy can leave room for your discretion on the facts for each employee, but having such a policy will help employees and managers know what to expect when a request for compassionate or bereavement leave is made.

If an employee does request time off for bereavement you should try and work with them to determine how their request can be accommodated.  Every situation will be different and not every person will need the same amount of time.  You have a variety of options to give employees the time they need to properly mourn the death of a loved one, including:

  • compassionate leave (paid or unpaid);
  • bereavement leave (paid or unpaid subject to the statutory right to parental bereavement leave outlined previously);
  • flexible working;
  • part-time working.

You should also take care not to discriminate.  Some religions may have specific grieving rituals or customs surrounding bereavement and you should try and accommodate these if possible.  Some employees may become depressed after losing someone close to them, and depression can be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010.  Where it does fall within the Equality Act you must be aware of your responsibilities under that Act not to discriminate against an employee because of their disability and to consider any duty you may have to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee.  

When an employee does come back to work, it is important that they are still supported and do not become a victim of bullying or harassment, for example, employees may face harassment if they struggle to perform to the level they were at before their bereavement.  Some employees may come back to work before they are ready because they are struggling to cope with their grief at home.  You should be attentive to returning employees and consider strategies to help them ease back into work, such as temporarily reducing their workload or flexible working arrangements.

Supporting your employees who are grieving is a sensitive yet important step in helping them through their difficult time.  If you would like to discuss how we can assist you with drafting or implementing a bereavement leave or compassionate leave policy, you can contact us on 023 8071 7717 or email employment@warnergoodman.co.uk for more information on how we can help your business.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.