When her son Jack died at just 23 months old in an accident, Lucy Herd (pictured) realised the complete lack of bereavement leave typically available in the UK. At the time, there was no statutory entitlement for any time off after the death of a loved one, and Jack’s father received just three days – one of which was for the funeral.
Herd launched what would become a 10-year campaign to introduce statutory parental bereavement leave, something that will come into effect on 6 April. Known as ‘Jack’s Law’, in memory of Herd’s son, the legislation will entitle parents who have lost a child under the age of 18, or whose baby is stillborn from 24 weeks of pregnancy, to a statutory minimum of two weeks’ leave. They can take this as a single block or as two one-week breaks across the first year after the child’s death.
The law will cover any working parent no matter how long they have worked for a company, and those employed for six months or longer will also be able to claim statutory pay for this bereavement period. The government estimates Jack’s Law will support around 10,000 parents a year.
“I had to ensure that no other bereaved person was told they couldn’t take time off for the death of anyone, but for the death of a child specifically,” Herd told the BBC after the law was passed. “The loss of a child is something you never get over, it’s always there. So hopefully parents will be able to take the time off they need when they need it.”
It’s difficult to know exactly how much bereavement leave individuals get in the UK because there is a great deal of variation, says Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser for resourcing and inclusion at the CIPD. The gov.uk website suggests three to five unpaid days is typical, and there is also a legal right to time off for dependants in emergencies (a spouse, partner, child, parent or anyone living in the same household, or someone who relies on the employee for their care or help in an emergency), which could include bereavement. “But we know many of our members will go beyond that and there is very strong support for Jack’s Law,” says McCartney.
“There’s probably a variety of practice going on out there, and that’s why this introduction is really important. Because while there are some excellent employers that will be going above and beyond this minimum requirement, there will be those not offering enough support and forcing people to come back to work too quickly.”
But Jack’s Law is the only statutory bereavement leave currently available, and whether or not it will lead to further legislation offering leave for the death of other relations is unclear. “Hopefully it will break down some of the barriers and help employers understand they need to be really supportive of people, and understand grief is not a linear process,” says McCartney.
Jack’s Law could increase the pressure on businesses to extend the same sort of allowance to those suffering other family losses, says Trevor Bettany, partner at Charles Russell Speechlys. But as it currently stands, the law itself has limitations, he adds. “Even though the right to leave is a ‘day one’ employment right from April, it will nevertheless be difficult for some of the most vulnerable to take it,” says Bettany, reiterating that statutory pay is only available to those who have been with their employer for 26 weeks, and could be as low as £148.68 per week.
Grieving the death of a family member or friend can be one of the most difficult times in a person’s life, says Tom Neil, senior adviser at Acas, so it’s crucial companies allow staff as much time and space as is practical. “How they are treated can have a huge effect on how they handle the bereavement, and also how they feel towards their employer and their work going forward,” he says.
Employers need to be as flexible as possible, and while a conversation about when an employee plans to return to work may not be appropriate in the first few days, “it is important to start a dialogue that will allow a discussion around how the employee is doing”, Neil adds.
When an employee does return to work it’s essential the support continues. “It’s unlikely that you’ll be done with all of your grief in those two weeks,” says McCartney. Counselling and other wellbeing services need to be signposted and line managers trained to handle sensitive conversations.
But one of the most important things is not to leave bereavement as the awkward issue everyone is acutely aware of but afraid to mention. “The worst thing you can do to someone who’s been bereaved is ignore the fact or try to avoid the subject,” says McCartney. “They may not want to talk about the situation, but acknowledging it’s happened certainly is important.”
Bereavement leave globally: how does the UK compare?
Providing two-weeks’ statutory leave, Jack’s Law makes the UK one of the most generous to parents who have lost a child. But it is also the only statutory bereavement leave available in the UK, meaning we lag behind some other countries when it comes to the death of a spouse, parent or other loved one.
Canada, Australia, Brazil and China all provide paid bereavement leave for close relatives, but France is one of the most generous. French employees are entitled to three days’ paid leave for the death of a spouse, parent, sibling or even an in-law, and five for the death of a child.