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 considerations to make for your future HR policies.

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What Is Special Leave?

Special leave is the term used for time off given to employees, by employers, for a range of extenuating circumstances. This could include paid or unpaid time off, and is typically in addition to annual leave.

We can’t have a conversation surrounding compassionate or bereavement leave without considering special leave. In short, special leave is leave that encompasses each of these, as well as other situations that could affect an employee’s ability to be present at work.

What Is A Special Leave Policy?

An employer might consider having a special leave policy in place, in order to have a framework for employees to request time off in the event of something unanticipated or unexpected.

The idea here is to ensure that organizations have the opportunity to make clear what is available to employees, and what they should do in the event of these emergency requests.

Examples Of Special Leave

Some examples of special leave may include, but are not limited to:

  • Serious illness or bereavement of a relative
  • Unforeseen energies that involve dependants
  • Unexpected domestic emergencies that may come up

What Is Compassionate Leave?

Compassionate leave is time afforded to employees due to a death in the family or of a close loved one. This allows employees the time they need to grieve, make arrangements, and attend a potential funeral.

What Is Bereavement Leave?

Bereavement leave is essentially the same as compassionate leave, and the two terns are often used interchangeably. This is time employees take off in order to bereave the loss of a loved one and make any relevant preparations.

What Is Grievance Leave?

Grievance leave is also a popular term that refers to the same thing as both compassionate and bereavement leave. Essentially, it is leave that affords someone the opportunity to grieve for a close relative (and all of the potential steps that come with it).

Types of Compassionate Leave

Let’s illustrate compassionate and bereavement leave with two relevant examples…

Compassionate Leave for 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 at the employer’s discretion.

Compassionate Leave for 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.

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What Is Compassionate Leave Entitlement?

How much time can you take off when it comes to compassionate leave? By the letter of the law, the right is to a ‘reasonable’ amount of time that suits the conditions of the leave. This will be highly contingent on the scenario, though, where one to two days may be appropriate, or a week or more. It all depends.

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. This is why the concept of ‘reasonable time’ is one that is better handled on a case-by-case basis.

How Much Is Compassionate Leave Pay?

The fact is that there is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to compassionate leave pay, and the same goes for bereavement leave pay. Employees may get paid, or they may go on unpaid leave, it all depends on the policy you have in place. Learn more by visiting Acas’ time off for bereavement page.

Click here for our full guide to employee holiday pay.

What Is A Compassionate Leave Policy?

Although an employer does not have to state that they allow compassionate leave, since that it is a right for all employees, a compassionate or bereavement leave policy helps set the guidelines for notice periods, the terms of paid or unpaid leave, and anything else an employer believes is necessary when it comes to their unique policy.

What Is Parental Bereavement Leave?

Parental bereavement leave occurs when parents deal with the death of a child, if they die under 18 or after 24 weeks of pregnancy. In these incredibly sad circumstances, parents are entitled to two weeks of both leave and pay.

Should Your Company Have A Bereavement Leave Policy?

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

For example, psychiatric counselor, 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.

Compassionate Leave Requires 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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Are Employers Legally Required To Give Compassionate Leave?

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.

Click here for Personio’s complete guide to unpaid leave in the UK.

Can Employers Provide More Compassionate Leave?

Organizations 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.

Compassionate and Bereavement Leave: Common Challenges

Grief is a deeply personal, highly challenging, and emotionally fraught experience. While there are five recognized 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 organizations. 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.

Considerations For Compassionate Leave Policy

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 recognize 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 counseling.

It is also important to consider broader issues about employees’ behavior 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.

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 organization 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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