What can employers do to help bereaved employees?

Bereavement is one of the most sensitive issues a manager can face. Sheila Attwood offers tips on how to support staff and devise a compassionate leave policy

Acas suggests that at any time, one in 10 employees is likely to be affected by bereavement. As Benjamin Franklin once famously said about life: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

While there is currently no statutory obligation to provide paid bereavement leave, our latest research indicates that many employers offer their staff paid time off following a bereavement.

Nearly all organisations (97.9 per cent) taking part in the survey grant some or all paid bereavement leave. Two-thirds use a combination of paid and unpaid bereavement leave, while one-third pay employees for all bereavement leave taken.

Three-fifths of employers (61.2 per cent) vary the amount of paid bereavement leave, most commonly according to the closeness of the bereaved employee’s relationship to the deceased. 

One in five (20.6 per cent) vary the amount of leave by other factors, such as travel requirements to attend the funeral and the mental and physical health of the bereaved employee following the bereavement.

The paid bereavement leave provided is often limited to five days in respect of the closest relationships (including spouses/civil partners, partners, parents, siblings and children). Lower entitlements – usually one to three days’ paid bereavement leave – are provided for what might be considered less close relationships (including grandparents, grandchildren, step parents, in-laws, aunts/uncles and cousins).

The two-thirds of employers that offer some or all bereavement leave on an unpaid basis – in line with the basic provision specified by the Employment Rights Act 1996 – tend to decide the amount that they will grant on a case-by-case basis.

Offering support

When granting bereavement leave, many employers recognise that being flexible is crucial. Employees will need to travel to attend the funeral, may have responsibility for making funeral arrangements and they may not be ready to return to work immediately, so all these factors should be considered when granting additional leave, although this would not necessarily be paid leave.

Mindful of the sensitivity of the subject, it’s good to note that few employers ask for proof of a bereavement before granting leave. The majority also take steps to ensure cases are handled sympathetically. 

The most common actions include providing guidance to line managers on being sensitive if the bereavement affects an employee’s attendance or performance; maintaining a dialogue with the affected employee while they are on leave; and making employees aware of any counselling or employee assistance programme available to them. 

Knowing they have access to paid time off will ease the burden on employees during a difficult time. Many organisations also allow some flexibility to their policy, operating with sympathy and trust to help prevent any further stress for affected employees.

Developing a robust compassionate leave policy is therefore essential to help employees come to terms with the death of a loved one, a serious illness or injury involving a loved one, or serious personal relationship problems.

Here are our tips for devising a policy on compassionate leave:

  • Recognise the statutory right of all workers to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work for dependants.
  • Be aware that any compassionate leave granted in relation to an opposite sex partner should also be granted in relation to a same-sex partner.
  • Make a policy on compassionate leave applicable to all employees rather than differentiating on grounds of grade or status, but consider stipulating a minimum length of service in respect of any paid leave.
  • Clearly define the range of circumstances in which compassionate leave will be granted, and include a list of the family members in respect of whom the right to take leave will apply.
  • Define how much compassionate leave may be granted while retaining some discretion and flexibility to be able to show consideration to individual employees in times of difficulty.
  • Decide whether compassionate leave should be granted on a paid or unpaid basis, or a combination of both and, if leave is to be paid, clarify whether this means only basic pay or whether any allowances to which the employee is normally entitled are included.
  • Take steps such as issuing written management guidelines to ensure that the policy is applied fairly and consistently, while still allowing flexibility to cater for individuals' needs.
  • Recognise the benefits of granting compassionate leave to employees who genuinely need time off to deal with personal and family problems.

Sheila Attwood is managing editor for pay and HR practice at XpertHR