Losing someone you love is a life-changing moment that can make it feel like your world has completely stopped, while the world around you is somehow still moving. Wanting to grieve in private, away from the gaze of your colleagues or the call of a spreadsheet is normal, but how much time away from your desk is enough time, and what are your rights when it comes to bereavement leave?
While bereavement leave (or as it is sometimes known, compassionate leave) isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Employment Rights Act, section 57A of the Act does deal with ‘time off for dependants'. Under this section, most employees have the statutory right to a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off from work to allow them to deal with ‘emergencies’ involving a ‘dependant’. In this sense of the word, 'dependant' refers to a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent or someone who depends on you for care, and an 'emergency' can refer, among other things, to both a death and the time you may need to organise and attend a funeral.
While there's no legal stipulation as to how many days of paid leave an employer must offer an employee in relation to a bereavement, things do seem to be improving. Facebook recently announced that it has doubled bereavement leave allowance for staff and will now be offering up to 20 days off with pay to mourn close family members. The policy change was announced by the tech company’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg who lost her husband, Dave Goldberg in 2015. In a Facebook post announcing the change, she said: “Amid the nightmare of Dave's death when my kids needed me more than ever, I was grateful every day to work for a company that provides bereavement leave and flexibility. I needed both to start my recovery. I know how rare that is, and I believe strongly that it shouldn't be. People should be able both to work and be there for their families. No one should face this trade-off. We need public policies that make it easier for people to care for their children and ageing parents and for families to mourn and heal after loss.”
It could be the difference between an employee handing in their notice and building a stronger tie with their company
Research suggests that a sympathetic bereavement leave policy, like Facebook's, can have a real effect on how an employee feels about their position within a company. The National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) published a report in 2014 which found that 32% of employees who suffered a bereavement in the past five years felt that they had not been treated with compassion by their employers. Furthermore, 56% of people said that they would consider leaving their job if their employer did not provide proper support if someone close to them died. In many situations, a positive experience will always be remembered and in the case of bereavement and employment, it could be the difference between an employee handing in their notice and building a stronger tie with their company.
So what should you do if you have been recently bereaved? First of all, check your company’s bereavement or compassionate leave policy. This information should either be in your contract, your employee handbook or a company intranet if available. “Many organisations do specify a certain amount of ‘compassionate leave’. For example, five days with the caveat that each situation be reviewed on its own merits and subject to management discretion,” says Martine Robins, the director of The HR Department Woking. After you’ve clued yourself up, you should contact your line manager or HR department as soon as possible to notify them of your situation. “If for any reason you are unable to do this, then you should ask someone close to you to do so,” says Martine. By contacting your work and explaining the situation, you will not only ensure that you are following the guidance stipulated by the Employment Rights Act but will also allow your employer to “ascertain, if possible to do so, what impact this will have on you.”
When you ring your employer, it may be helpful to be open about how you’re feeling, your relationship to the person who died and whether you have any added pressures (for example, you may be the executor of their will) so that they can take into account the nuances of your situation. And what if you aren’t ready to return to work after your agreed amount of time off? “Everyone deals with grief differently and your company should be aware of this already. I would suggest that you ring your line manager and/or HR contact to discuss how you are feeling in more detail,” says Martine. "You may even be asked to go in for a meeting, but don’t panic, this meeting shouldn't be anything to worry about, rather an opportunity for the company to express its support towards you."
When you are ready to return to work, you should still feel the support of your employees behind you. “When someone is returning to work after such an experience, it can be daunting and overwhelming. Being greeted by HR back into the business and for HR to see how the person is coping and assessing how they are able to transition back to work is important,” says Martine. “HR needs to gauge if some modification to the employee’s working arrangements needs to happen initially or possibly advising colleagues on how they can help in your return – whatever is needed to facilitate getting back to normal. They may offer an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which can range from a confidential support telephone service to bereavement counsellors who can provide practical assistance. HR should work with the employee and be the ‘conduit’ between them and the business to ascertain the best way to move forward that is right for them.”
And what if you’re grieving for someone who falls outside of the definition of a ‘dependant?’ Then, unfortunately, you may be asked to take unpaid time off or some of your holiday days as bereavement leave. But ultimately this decision will be at your manager’s discretion, so make sure to contact them and your HR representative within an appropriate amount of time to discuss your options.
If you find yourself in this situation and struggling to cope, charities like Cruse offer a range of bereavement services throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These include confidential and free face-to-face, group, telephone, email and online support sessions from trained volunteers, so whether you are grieving the loss of a parent or friend, you can feel supported outside of your 9-5.
None of us is immune to the loss of a loved one, but our employers should help us to feel supported when it happens. While paid bereavement leave may not be a legal right as yet, there is hope for change. In the meantime, check up on what leave you are entitled to at your work at the moment and think about engaging in a discussion with your employer about extending these rights if you don’t feel they are sufficient. If something doesn’t seem right to you, change it.