Quarter of staff faced bereavement in the last year, poll shows

Charity says this costs the economy £23bn per annum and calls for statutory paid leave to reduce the longer-term bill for businesses and taxpayers

Almost a quarter of employees have experienced a bereavement in the last year, a poll has found, leading to calls for workers to be given the right to statutory bereavement leave.

A poll of more than 2,000 working-age adults, commissioned by charity Sue Ryder this September, found 24 per cent of employees had lost someone in the last 12 months. If extrapolated to the wider working population, this means 7.9 million UK workers faced bereavement in the last year.

This was having a knock-on effect on the wider economy, the charity said. It estimated staff absences and decreased productivity as bereaved workers dealt with the mental, physical and financial impacts of bereavement cost the economy £23bn a year. It put the cost to the Treasury, through reduced tax revenues and increased use of the NHS and social care services, at another £8bn annually.

The charity called for employees suffering the loss of a close relative or partner to be given two weeks’ statutory paid bereavement leave. It argued that while this might create an upfront cost, it would reduce the longer-term cost to both businesses and the taxpayer.

Heidi Travis, chief executive at Sue Ryder, said statutory bereavement leave would give workers “a crucial period of time to start processing their grief”. She added that low-income workers, who studies showed were more likely to face persistent grief – in part because the higher financial cost of bereavement – were most likely to benefit.

“Currently many employers offer three to five days’ compassionate leave, but lower-income workers in less secure jobs often don’t have access to any leave,” Travis said.

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The call for statutory paid bereavement leave was backed by Steven Wibberley, chief executive of Cruse Bereavement Care. “The death of someone close can be one of the most distressing things any of us will ever go through. While some may find it helpful to return to work shortly after a bereavement, others may need longer,” he said.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to grief, and we would urge employers to be as flexible as possible in how they support bereaved employees.”

Kate Palmer, HR director at Peninsula, also backed calls for paid bereavement leave. But she warned that employers should not “assume that two weeks was sufficient time for the employee to ‘have dealt’ with their loss”. Employers should look for ways to support the employee on their return, which could be lighter duties or shorter working hours for a temporary period, she said.

These calls for paid time off for bereaved workers came in the wake of Jack’s Law, which gives parents the statutory right to two weeks’ paid leave after the death of a child. The law came into force in April this year following a long-running campaign by Lucy Herd, whose son Jack died in 2010.

Claire McCartney, diversity and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, said the introduction of Jack’s Law was an important step forward in recognising the need for parental bereavement leave and pay. “We want to see this extended to all employees who are experiencing [the loss] of a close family member – and we wrote to the government in July calling for this,” she said.

Bereaved employees were highly unlikely to be able to perform well at work if forced to return too soon, McCartney added.

Improvements to paid bereavement leave would provide “a long-overdue minimum baseline” for employees, said HR consultant and coach Gemma Bullivant. But financial support for staff should be seen as just the starting point for employers, she said. 

“The typical grief recovery timeframe is much longer than any reasonable period of paid bereavement leave would allow, and indeed extended paid leave is not what most people would need or want. Instead a range of support over a longer period of time is needed.”

The coronavirus pandemic had “cast a spotlight on the urgent need to better support people who are dealing with grief”, said Debbie Abrahams, Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth and member of the work and pensions select committee. 

“Introducing a statutory right to two weeks’ paid bereavement leave would be a significant step forward,” she said. “I’ve heard too many stories from people who’ve felt obliged to return to work straight after the death of someone close to them, when they simply weren’t ready.”