After a long campaign by Lucy Herd following the death of her son Jack at just 23 months old, 'Jack’s Law' sees the introduction of statutory parental bereavement leave of two weeks from today. It has been welcomed by many as a positive step forward – but is two weeks really the best the government can do to support parents grieving the loss of a child?
Up until this point, the onus has been on the employer to provide pay and leave in this situation, with little guidance or support from the government and often resulting in employers falling back to standard bereavement policies.
Few of us can imagine the pain associated with stillbirth or the death of a child. However, for an estimated 10,000 parents a year, this situation is a sad reality. After a child dies, parents have an awful lot to cope with and the pressure of having to return to work so soon afterwards is an added stress they can clearly do without.
While most businesses are sympathetic in these situations and reassure employees that they can take off as much time as they need, often they will have to take any extra time (over and above the standard three days’ bereavement leave most employers tend to offer) as holiday or sick leave. And if a sustained period of sick leave is on their record, there have been cases where it’s been used against an employee in performance reviews and redundancy situations.
It’s important for businesses to take bereavement leave seriously as it shows the company cares. Unfortunately, not all employers are compassionate, and this is why the statutory right to leave and pay needs extending further. In the past, I’ve worked with women who have lost babies and then felt pressure to return to work for fear of not being paid or even losing their job. Beyond being given adequate time to grieve, there are many ways employers can help support employees:
Review bereavement policies
Longer periods of paid bereavement leave are at a company’s discretion, but they can really help ease the financial pressures on employees and stop them worrying about having to ask for additional leave or having a poor sickness absence record.
Some organisations might be able to offer employees professional support to help them during difficult times. A referral to occupational health to see whether any adjustments can be made to their role or access to a counselling service could be hugely beneficial to an employee returning to work.
Ease the return to work process
For some, returning to work might come as a welcome distraction, while others will struggle to cope. Emotions can be unpredictable so adjustments such as a phased return would allow employees to come back to work gradually without the added pressure of a full-time commitment.
Create a welcoming return environment
Bereaved employees often say the worst part about returning to work is how their colleagues will treat them and knowing what to say to them. Employers should acknowledge the situation with the employee’s colleagues and offer them advice for welcoming their team member back to work.
It’s great to see that the hard work campaigning for change has finally paid off for Jack’s family, but the government still needs to do more. The impact of losing a child lasts far longer than two weeks and the adequate amount of statutory rights for employees just isn’t there right now. The cost and burden of anything over and above two weeks falls to the employer. Hopefully, now the issue is highlighted there will be more changes to come.
Danielle Ayres is a partner and employment specialist at Gorvins Solicitors