Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult experiences that an individual can endure, with bereavement leave regarded as an integral part of the grieving process. Permitting leave in this situation can be well received by a workforce, but employers should always consider the implications of doing so. In this article, Ben McCarthy, employment law writer at Croner-i, considers how employers may implement bereavement leave.

What does the law say?

The first thing to be clear on is that there is currently no legal requirement for employers to allow their employees any time off work following a bereavement. In fact, employees currently have no right to any form of bereavement leave at all. Permitting time off for employees in times of bereavement is down to the discretion of their employer and it is perfectly acceptable for such requests to be refused.

The closest the law currently gets to providing any form of bereavement leave is the right to take time off for dependants. From the first day of their employment, employees can take “reasonable” time away from work to deal with emergencies that involve a “dependant”, which can include illness or death, but does not include time taken to grieve. Legislation is also clear upon who this leave can be taken for, defining dependants as spouses, children or someone who depends upon the employee for care.

Permitting bereavement leave

Employers should never underestimate the impact that grief can have on their workforce. Although some employers may be concerned that allowing employees time away from work during these situations could cause issues in overall company productivity, they should consider how much work an employee is going to be able to feasibly do immediately following their loss. Not only are they probably not likely to work to full capacity, they may also prove distracting to their colleagues, especially if they are visibly upset.

Care should also be taken to consider the potential consequences of not allowing the employee to take any time away from work following the death of a loved one. Such an act may cause damage to the ongoing employment relationship, potentially leading to the employee becoming dissatisfied in their role and seeking employment elsewhere. If the employee is denied time away from work to grieve, the resulting stress could even encourage the development of depression or other mental health issues, which could have a more substantial long-term impact on workplace performance.

That said, how companies respond in these situations will always depend upon the views of management and the demands of the business. Some managers may be sympathetic to their employee’s loss and be willing to let them take the time, while others may be less so. Both approaches are legally permissible but, regardless of personal preference, employers should always take care to consider how this absence will affect their operations. The company may simply not have capacity to allow the employee to be off that day, especially if there is no one available to cover their duties.

Additionally, if an employer was to permit one employee to take the time off, this could result in the floodgates opening and other members of staff expecting the same treatment. The issue in this situation would be how far the employer would be willing to let these requests go; while managers may be open to some time off to process the death of a parent or child, they may be less so following the loss of a distant family relation. They particularly may feel less inclined to permit additional time away from work if the employee suffers the loss of a pet.

Managing employee bereavement

If the employer is open to permitting bereavement leave, it should proceed with care. The last thing they want is to be accused of favouring one employee over another. To this end, it is highly advisable to maintain a company policy that specifies exactly who employees can take bereavement leave in relation to, such as spouses, children or parents, and for how long this will be permitted. If the employer has not created a clear bereavement policy and it is not within the terms and conditions of employment, then any decision to grant this leave must be consistent across the board.

If an employer is set against offering bereavement leave then they could perhaps allow a degree of flexibility when it comes to booking annual leave in these situations. They should consider that a bereavement can occur suddenly and take this into consideration if staff submit short-notice requests for extended time off. Enabling annual leave in these situations will ensure individuals are given sufficient time off to recover, while not keeping them away from work for longer than is expected. Regardless of whether leave is permitted, employers should still be prepared to offer support to their employees in this difficult time. This can be done by holding regular meetings with them and, additionally, they should also be referred to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) if the company makes use of one.

The future

The law around bereavement leave is changing and from April 2020 the specific right to parental bereavement leave will be introduced. As a result, employees will be granted a two-week period of statutory bereavement leave if they lose a child under the age of 18. While the period of leave is considered a day one right, parents will need to have 26 weeks’ continuous service to be eligible for statutory parental bereavement pay during this time. Currently, there is also no clear definition of the eligibility criteria required to take this leave, including whether this right will just apply to biological parents or if it will be extended to include foster parents, adoptive parents or legal guardians who care for the child. It is likely, however, that the rate of pay will be the same as that paid during other family related leave.

Conclusion

Despite the upcoming parental bereavement leave, allowing employees additional leave in this situation remains in the hands of their employer and this is unlikely to change any time soon. Having said that, employers should always consider how their mismanagement of this situation could be poorly received by their workforce. As outlined by Acas: “A compassionate and supportive approach demonstrates that the organisation values its employees, helps build commitment, reduces sickness absence, and retains the workforce.”

Last reviewed 30 October 2019