How Do You Properly Manage Compassionate Leave?

Compassionate Leave

Compassionate leave is a particularly fragile discussion topic. That’s because losing a loved one can be one of the most traumatic situations in life. How do HR leaders cope when this happens to one of their employees?

In this article, we break down the various types of compassionate leave. Then, we discuss the requirements under UK law, thorny issues, and important to consider for your future HR policies.

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What Is Compassionate Leave?

Compassionate leave is leave taken by an employee due to unforeseen (and often unfortunate) circumstances. As it can happen suddenly, compassionate leave is not something easy to expect. That said, there are two distinct types of compassionate leave. First, the leave an employee takes during a family emergency, and the leave they take when someone close to them dies.

Let’s break down both of these a bit further to get a better handle on them…

Compassionate Leave: Family Emergencies

The first allows employees to take time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependent. For further clarification, nidirect offers a guide on what counts as an emergency.

According to gov.uk, a dependent could be “a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who depends on you for care”. There is no set amount of time recommended, allocated, or required for compassionate leave but it must be reasonable.

While there are no limits on how often employees can take time off for dependents, employers do not have to pay people for taking this type of compassionate leave.

In addition, employees cannot take this type of compassionate leave if they knew about a situation beforehand. For example, if an employer needed to take time off for a hospital appointment, this is not classified as compassionate leave.

Instead, employees might be entitled to parental leave. Otherwise, allowing the time off and paying for it remains the employer’s discretion.

Compassionate Leave: Death

Acas advises that everyone has the right to time off if someone including their partner, parent, child, or someone else who relied on them died. That in mind, employers have no legal responsibility to pay employees for the time taken off to cope with a dependents’ death (other than their child).

It is advised, though, that it’s important for employers to be sensitive to what each person might need at the time and to consider the person’s physical and emotional wellbeing: both at the time and once they have returned to work. While there may not be a hard-and-fast rule, everything is contextual in this case.

Compassionate Leave Requires Showing Compassion

It is critical for any good HR leader to understand the importance of compassion, understanding, and empathy in the workplace. That’s not just because it is fundamental to human relationships, it also benefits business.

After all, organisations that show support for their employees when times are tough are more likely to encourage compassionate behaviour in employees themselves. Or, to foster reciprocation once an employee has recovered.

For example, psychiatric counsellor, Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury says, “Compassion from leaders and co-workers brings a feeling of gratitude and influences the person to reciprocate in the same way when noticing someone else struggling with adversities” – and she cites research from Fredrickson, 2003; and Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, and Larkin, 2003 to support this.

What Is Compassionate Leadership?

Compassionate leadership means supporting employees during one of the most difficult times in their life. While there may be no legal right for time off for a funeral (with the exception of parental leave – as we explain below), many employers offer something because it is the right thing to do.

In fact, compassionate leadership has been acknowledged by Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn between 2008 and 2020, as ‘an incredible competitive advantage’ over all other forms of professional strategies.

This could include pay, providing employees with the opportunity to take unpaid leave, or letting them use a portion of their annual leave as compassionate leave (when necessary).

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What Does UK Law State?

Are employers legally required to give employees compassionate leave? It depends on how you define compassionate leave. Secondly, as callous as this might sound, who died. Employees who lost a child (less than 18 years old) or had a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy are both entitled to two weeks of statutory parental bereavement leave, as well as statutory parental bereavement pay.

Organisations can, of course, provide an employee with more leave. This depends on their approach and how this is enshrined within their policies. That said, employers can only claim £151.20 a week or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) back from the government for the time the employee has taken off.

Employees also have the right to return to their job after this leave. Acas provides guidance about what employees must do to notify their employers and how to claim the statutory pay related to this time off.

However, the rules are murkier if anyone other than an employee’s child dies. Acas says that employees have the right to time off if a ‘dependent’ dies. They take this to include their partner, parent, child, or someone who relied on them.

That said, the law is not so clear about how much time they can receive. It simply states that they should be allowed a ‘reasonable’ amount of time, which they say is for ‘dealing with unexpected issues and emergencies, including leave to arrange or attend a funeral’.

How Much ‘Reasonable’ Time Should Be Taken for a Death?

Gov.uk describes the five practical, necessary steps that must be dealt with when someone dies. This includes registering the death and arranging the funeral to informing the government, dealing with bereavement benefits, pensions, taxes, estates, and even checking whether the person dealing with the death of their loved one needs to apply to remain in the UK. However, dealing with someone’s death is a much broader issue than addressing the practicalities of life without them.

The Challenges Facing Employers and Employees During Compassionate Leave

Grief is a deeply personal, highly challenging, and emotionally-fraught experience. While there are five recognised stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then acceptance), everyone goes through these phases in their own way.

It is also important to remember that grief is not simply felt when someone dies. Losing someone or something important can also trigger grief. This could include:

  • Loss of a job
  • End of a relationship
  • Death of a pet
  • Moving to a new home
  • Adjusting to a chronic illness

In addition, it’s important to remember that coping with an employee’s grief is challenging for both employers and employees. While 97.9% of companies grant some or all bereavement leave on a paid basis, according to a survey by XpertHR), compassionate leave is just the beginning. The additional stage of coping with the implications of loss and grief on the employee (and the work they do) is crucial.

Unplanned leave is highly disruptive for organisations. An employee’s attitude to work may change after they return. And, having an employee off work also affects their colleagues. Companies need to find a practical balance between compassion for an individual and the need to get their work done. Ultimately, as HR leaders, it is up to you and the company to decide what is reasonable and what is not. In addition, to make this clear to your employees in the best way possible.

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HR Issues To Consider For Compassionate Leave

According to the NHS, the most common symptoms of grief include shock and numbness, overwhelming sadness, tiredness or exhaustion, anger and/or guilt.

However, they also say that these powerful feelings may appear unexpectedly and it’s not always easy to recognise when bereavement, grief, or loss are the reason employees might be acting or feeling differently. That is why it is important for HR leaders to be informed about grief, as a topic, and to seek advice and guidance from trusted sources.

One such source is Marie Curie, the UK’s leading end-of-life charity. They provide advice and guidance on supporting a grieving friend or relative. They also offer bereavement counselling.

It is also important to consider broader issues about employees’ behaviour while recovering from grief. Not only is this the right thing to do, to provide the best level of support to your employees, it is also important to think about these questions when compiling any of your HR policies that address compassionate leave.

Grief-Related Questions Your Company Should Consider

  • What happens if someone is taking an unusually long time off work after a death?
  • What happens if the death affects their ability to do their job on their return?
  • If they suffer from mental health challenges after someone passed away and continue to stay off work, should this be classed as sickness absence?
  • What happens if they come back to work too soon and their performance suffers?
  • What support should the company provide to the employee during their time away, and on their return?

Bereavement Support in the UK

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with bereavement you can contact:

Compassionate Leave: Compassion Is Always Critical

Ultimately, it is up to your company to decide how much leave is allocated, under what circumstances, and whether it is paid or unpaid.

But, whatever you decide, make sure you include this information in your employees’ employment contracts and associated documentation. And then make sure that both employees and managers can find the relevant information when they need it.

Online tools like Personio can help HR leaders, their teams, and the broader organisation manage documents, policies and procedures to make it easier for everyone to have the information they need at their fingertips when they’re being affected by challenging emotional issues.

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