What is compassionate or bereavement leave?

It is human nature to try and support others through emotionally difficult times. 

However, what happens when bereavement or a gravely unexpected personal problem coincides with an employee’s work responsibilities?

Supporting an employee through a difficult period of their life can be a delicate balancing act. When done correctly, you can help them navigate their way through trauma and solidify a more robust working relationship. 

What is compassionate or bereavement leave?

However, getting it wrong can open a can of HR worms!

Read on for the essential guide to compassionate sabbaticals and bereavement leave. 

What is compassionate leave?

Compassionate leave is a form of permitted absence. It happens when an employee needs time to deal with a sensitive, upsetting, or distressing life event. 

Examples of when compassionate leave can be taken include:

  • When a close friend or loved one is taken seriously ill or is critically injured
  • If they have been subject to a crime
  • If they have been the victim of (or witness to) a harrowing event

What is the difference between compassionate leave and bereavement leave?

The two phrases are often used interchangeably. However, they generally do not cover the same things.

Bereavement leave is for taking time off work following the death of a close friend, dependent or family member.

Compassionate leave covers the examples above or taking time off work to care for a close relative or dependent.

What are an employee’s legal rights to emergency time off?

As an employee, you are permitted to emergency time off to deal with a situation or event.

There are no set rules whether the compassionate leave is paid or unpaid; it will depend on the employer. It is best to check your contract or company handbook for specifics about pay for compassionate leave.

Who is classed as a dependent?

You will often hear the term dependent used when referring to compassionate, emergency or bereavement leave.

A dependent can be any of the following:

  • A spouse or partner
  • A child under the age of 18
  • A parent or grandparent
  • Someone living in the same house as you. This excludes flatmates, tenants, or lodgers.
  • Another person who relies on you for care

Parental bereavement leave and pay

Since the 6th April 2020, there have been changes to the law in respect of Parental Bereavement Leave. Parents have a legal right to 2 weeks off if:

  • Their child dies under the age of 18 years old
  • Their child is stillborn after 24 weeks of pregnancy

The term ‘parent’ can apply in any of the following circumstances: 

  • Biological parents
  • Adoptive parents
  • Legal parents through surrogacy
  • The partner of the child’s parent (if they live with the child and are in a long-term family relationship)
  • A person having responsibility and living with the child for a minimum of 4 weeks before death 

 Legally the leave can be two consecutive weeks or two separate weeks. 

The leave can start on any day but must be taken within 56 weeks following the death or stillbirth of the child. 

What are my rights to be paid when taking Parental Bereavement Leave?

If you fall under the category of Parental Bereavement Leave, then you are legally entitled to be paid for the statutory two weeks.   

The criteria for Parental Bereavement statutory pay is as follows:

You must

  • be employed at the time of death/stillbirth
  • have worked for the employer for at least 26 weeks on the Saturday before the death/stillbirth
  • earn on average £120 per week before tax

Statutory Parental Bereavement Leave pay is £151.20 per week or 90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings. Whichever is lower. 

What if my employer refuses me time off?

If your employer does not let you take time off for compassionate or bereavement purposes, or to take care of a dependent, then you can raise a grievance. 

In certain circumstances, you could be eligible to claim via an employment tribunal. 

If you feel you have been mistreated, then contact an employment lawyer for further advice. 

Problems when taking compassionate or bereavement leave

Your employer must not refuse you reasonable time off to deal with a situation that falls under the heading of compassionate or bereavement leave. They also must not:

  • Treat you differently or unfairly for taking time off
  • Refuse you a promotion or contractual benefits for taking leave
  • Dismiss you or choose you for redundancy because you have taken time off

If you feel that you have been treated unfairly for taking compassionate or bereavement leave, then we recommend that you seek advice. 

A trade union representative, Acas or an employment solicitor will talk you through your options.  

Should employers have a compassionate or bereavement leave policy?

There is no legal requirement for a company to have a policy covering emergency, compassionate or bereavement leave. However, not having guidelines in place can leave employers open to inconsistency, oversights, and grievances.

An effective, compassionate or bereavement leave workplace policy should include:

  • What events can constitute compassionate, emergency or bereavement leave
  • How much time the staff are entitled to
  • Whether the employee will be paid
  • Advice on how managers can respond and support their employees

More importantly, having a policy in place shows understanding and sensitivity as an employer. It demonstrates that you recognise the personal needs and emotions of your staff and that you have a procedure in place to support traumatic events, should they happen. 

A firm policy can help safeguard your business against the upheaval of unplanned absences, as well as give comfort to your employees during trying times.  

Key Takeaway

Compassionate and bereavement leave can be a difficult balancing act for those involved. It is important for employers to be sensitive to the personal lives of their staff but also maintain reasonable standards of conduct.

Are you an employer looking to implement a bereavement or compassionate leave policy? Or are you an employee concerned about your employer’s handling of a personal situation?

Whatever your circumstance, get in touch with one of our employment solicitors without delay. 

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