Employees should have the legal right to paid bereavement leave if a close family member dies, an open letter to the government has said, as the coronavirus pandemic highlights the need for extended and clear legal rights for those experiencing a loss.
Writing to business secretary Alok Sharma, the CIPD and campaigner Lucy Herd called for the introduction of a legal right to support employees experiencing the loss of any close family member including a parent, child, partner or sibling whether by blood, adoption or marriage.
The letter asks for an extension of Jack’s Law, which brought parental bereavement leave to the UK, to create a new legal right to two weeks’ bereavement leave and pay for all employees experiencing a bereavement of a close family member or dependant.
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Backed by organisations including BereavementUK and charity Cruse Bereavement Care, the letter highlighted that the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has resulted in tens of thousands of UK deaths, meant employees will have lost people close to them, including co-workers. It also pointed out that employees will be “highly unlikely to be able to perform well at work if they are forced to return too quickly”.
Claire McCartney, senior resourcing and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, said many employees will have lost family members to Covid-19 and will have been unable to say a proper goodbye because of lockdown restrictions. “It is vital for organisations to properly support those who are experiencing grief and loss by developing policies that offer long-term support,” she said.
Jack’s Law came into force in April following a campaign by Herd after the death of her son Jack in 2010, and provides a minimum of two weeks’ leave for all employed parents if they lose a child who is under the age of 18 or if a baby is stillborn from 24 weeks of pregnancy.
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However, outside of Jack’s Law, there are currently no legal requirements for employers to pay employees who take leave following the death of a close family member. Instead, most employers adhere to Acas guidance, which states that ‘reasonable’ time off is two days in the immediate aftermath of a death. However, Julia Sinclair-Brown, director, trainer and coach at Evolvida, highlighted that this is at the employer’s discretion and “often isn’t adequate”.
Sinclair-Brown added that while she supported Jack’s Law as a “step in the right direction”, she firmly believed it should be extended to all close family members – noting that it might be discriminatory against those who don’t have children.
“I can say from personal and professional experience that grief is unique for everyone and Jack’s Law seemed to put a measurement on the fact that child loss was the worst loss to be faced – in some ways saying that other close family relationships are less painful,” she said.
Even without a change to the law, Gemma Bullivant, HR consultant and coach, said businesses should look to implement a holistic bereavement framework to provide support to employees, including immediate paid time off to make practical arrangements and the “safety and security of unquestioning employer support”.
“Helping managers with what to expect and how to support a grieving team member, and helping colleagues with awareness webinars/training to feel more comfortable with how to support their grieving colleague is vital,” said Bullivant, adding that bereavement measures should “be part of a wider integrated wellbeing framework”.
A negative reaction from an employer to bereavement or a request for bereavement leave could also damage employee relations and have long-term consequences for their wellbeing, warned Vicky Pawsey, director of Papillon Psychology.
“Adopting an individualised, flexible, compassionate approach underpinned by peace of mind on receiving pay is not only absolutely the right thing to do but impacts on how employees feel about their employer and how they are willing to contribute in the future,” she said.
“Compassionate conversations take courage and by offering training, debriefs and support to line managers, along with clear and well-communicated policies, HR plays a critical role in helping equip managers with the skills to respond supportively to a bereaved employee in their team."
However, some legal experts suggested a statutory minimum of two weeks may be over generous, and a ‘one size fits all’ approach may not work for every business need.
Joanne Frew, partner and head of employment at DWF, said a blanket approach of two weeks’ paid leave would need careful consideration. “A balance needs to be sought between allowing someone the time to come to terms with their loss and enabling employers to manage the time off,” she said, adding that “what may be suitable in one circumstance would not necessarily work in another.”
Frew noted that other countries that allow bereavement leave were “generally less generous in the amount of time allowed”. France, for example – which is considered the most generous for paid bereavement leave – only offers three days’ paid leave for the death of a spouse, parent, sibling or an in-law, and five for the death of a child.
Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, added that while a legal requirement to provide this form of leave would make the situation clearer for employees, “it would limit any discretion that is currently afforded to employers to provide this leave”.