Dealing with serious illness or death in the family will affect most adults during their working life. When this happens, employees will most likely ask for compassionate leave to take care of dependants or make funeral arrangements.
Supporting your employees through difficult times could enhance retention and boost their morale and motivation. But if you are already struggling with understaffing, how long can your company afford to have an employee off work?
You can also consider alternative solutions to prolonged bereavement and compassionate leave. By giving your staff access to counselling via our Employee Assistance Programme, you offer them long-term support to deal with difficult life situations. Call us today to discuss best options, on 01455 858 132.
What is compassionate leave?
Compassionate leave in the UK is when employees take time off to deal with a life-threatening illness or death of a dependant.
Most people will think this refers to a family member only, such as a child, parent, or spouse. However, employment law clarifies the term also applies to a partner or household member whose livelihood depends on you.
When employees take compassionate leave in the UK for the death of a dependant, this is also known as bereavement leave.
Employees can request compassionate leave for a funeral, or to attend to a dependant in the last stage of a terminal illness. They might also want to support their dependant through a sudden worsening of a long-term condition. An individual’s diabetes or epilepsy symptoms can worsen to the point where they become life-threatening, and they might need somebody by their hospital bed.
But what is the law on compassionate leave?
UK law does not require employers to offer statutory compassionate or bereavement leave. However, under Section 57A and 57B of the Employment Rights Act 1996, staff members can “take a reasonable amount of time off” for dependants.
So, if you ask: “is compassionate leave mandatory?”, the answer is not that straightforward. There isn’t a compassionate leave entitlement by UK law. However, a refusal to grant it when employees face such difficult circumstances risks affecting trust and your reputation as an employer.
Next, let’s look at the two top questions employees and their staff members ask about this type of leave.
Employers ask: how long is compassionate leave?
As an employer, you want to show compassion to employees facing difficult life circumstances. Even more so when they have no control over these circumstances, how do you best support them?
To answer this question, you need to look at three aspects:
- The personal aspect
This depends on the nature of the relationship the employee has or had with their dependant.
- The financial aspect
Taking paid or unpaid leave will impact you and your employee differently.
- The operational aspect
Here, you need to consider how to manage operational needs while your employee takes leave.
Our experienced advisors recommend assessing each situation individually. If an employee’s child dies, and they need more than the recommended bereavement leave to grieve, don’t deny their need. On the other hand, if the friend they share a flat with falls severely ill, you could offer a day or two off.
Some companies include a compassionate leave policy in their documentation. This helps set certain boundaries and expectations to guide both your management and your staff. We will also cover this aspect further down.
Employees ask: is compassionate leave paid?
There is no legal obligation to offer paid compassionate leave in the UK. If company policies allow, the employee can request to use their annual leave. Also, due to the special circumstances, management can agree to skip regular requirements on annual leave requests.
Let’s say that the company leave policy states employees need to hand in leave requests a minimum of two weeks in advance. If their child dies suddenly or their elderly mother needs urgent surgery for a life-threatening condition, this becomes unattainable.
Employers can also decide to pay their staff for compassionate or bereavement leave. If funeral costs threaten to severely destabilise the employee’s living situation, making it even harder for them won’t do much good.
That is where companies find having a policy on this matter helps.
How a compassionate leave policy can help
Not having a policy on this particular type of leave can expose you to risks.
Firstly, you risk wasting time having to deal with each situation on a very spontaneous basis. Yes, you need flexibility in judging and deciding what to do best in each situation as it arises. However, relying on an existing framework will help you manage your time and your employees’ time more effectively.
Secondly, you risk discrimination claims if a staff member believes you treated them less favourably than a colleague in a similar situation.
You can minimise both risks by including:
- Standardised options for compassionate and bereavement leave, that cover a few typical situations
- Reserving the right to adapt the length and paid/unpaid options based on the personal circumstances of the employee
For example, you could mention a maximum of five days of compassionate leave in company policies. In addition, you can reserve the right to increase it on an individual basis, as the situation requires it.
Get instant HR advice
Dealing with the loss or serious illness of a family member already affects employees who face such a situation. Staff members will appreciate the support you offer, and clear expectations in this regard. You can truly make or break their morale and motivation by how you manage compassionate leave when they need it.
But you don’t need to sort it all out on your own. From the stage of putting together an employment contract to other necessary documentation, our HR advisors are here to help. Call us today on 01455 858 132.
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