In Western society there is a social pressure for people to grieve quickly and quietly. The fact is, many people still find it uncomfortable to speak openly about bereavement and grief.

From an employer’s perspective, managing bereavement in the workplace is a highly sensitive issue. When an employee loses a loved one, grief can have a huge impact on them. They may find it hard to concentrate at work and it may be difficult for them to perform their normal role, especially in a customer-facing one.

How businesses deal with bereavement leave is a difficult one, largely because grief affects everyone so differently. Some people want to get on with their daily lives and busy themselves with work as a distraction. Others struggle to cope with everyday life following a bereavement, and find work difficult to manage.

Regardless of the impact, most bereaved employees will need to take some time off unexpectedly and employers should have some policies in place to deal with this sad but inevitable eventuality. So, what exactly are the rules on bereavement leave?

The law on bereavement leave

There isn't actually a law to protect an employee’s right to bereavement leave. However, the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives employees the right to take time off to deal with an emergency situation, which includes the death of a dependent. There isn’t any statutory right to be paid for bereavement leave.

The Government is currently planning to introduce the right to two weeks paid leave for employed parents who lose a child under the age of 18, in the new Parental Bereavement (Pay and Leave) bill. The law is due to come into effect in 2020 and it will be one of the most generous allowances for bereaved parents in the world.

For now, bereavement leave comes down to employer discretion.

What is bereavement leave and why do employers need a policy on it?

It is precisely because there are no laws to protect an employee’s right to bereavement leave that employers should have a clear policy in place. It is extremely helpful to employees to know exactly where they stand on bereavement leave should the inevitable happen.

Bereavement leave is the time off granted to an employee when a loved one passes away. It can be paid or unpaid at the discretion of the employer.

Bereavement leave is important because it's an employer’s response to an employee’s devastating loss. It says the company cares and understands that a grieving employee needs to put aside work and take time to process and manage difficult personal feelings.

Company culture is changing. An increasing number of businesses understand the importance of work-life balance and how building stronger relationships with employees impacts employee engagement and productivity. Business culture is defining success. Read more about workplace culture here.

Empathy in the workplace builds loyalty and nowhere is an employer’s empathy more openly exposed than in its attitude to compassionate leave. Employers need a policy on bereavement leave to show that they care about their employees’ well-being. It is a vital part of building a respectful workplace. Insufficient bereavement leave will ultimately impact on employee performance and loyalty.

The technicalities of a bereavement leave policy

The issue of outlining criteria for a bereavement leave policy revolves around the fact that grief is subjective. One employee may have an estranged relationship with family and cope relatively easily with a bereavement, whereas another employee may lose a dear friend and suffer terribly. Defining situations that qualify for specific leave entitlements is virtually impossible.

A good example of bereavement leave

Last year, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, spoke out on compassionate leave and announced Facebook employees can now take up to 20 days paid leave if an immediate family member dies. Sandberg lost her husband in 2015, so understands first-hand the devastating effects that grief can have.

Quoted in an article for Personnel Today, Sandberg says “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.

 “Companies that stand by the people who work for them do the right thing and the smart thing – it helps them serve their mission, live their values, and improve their bottom line by increasing the loyalty and performance of their workforce.”

Facebook’s compassionate leave policy also allows employees to take up to 10 days’ leave to grieve an extended family member, and 6 weeks to care for a sick relative. In addition, the company has introduced 3 days of ‘family sick time’ to enable employees to take care of a family member with a short-term episode of illness, such as a child with flu.

For more information on good practice for managing bereavement in the workplace, see the ACAS guide here.

How to devise and implement a policy on bereavement leave

Any policy on bereavement leave should be written into the employee handbook. It will ensure employees who are faced with a bereavement don’t have to have any awkward conversations and know what to expect. Managers will also be clear if there is a policy on bereavement and won’t have to take difficult decisions on the granting of leave.

It is important to incorporate an element of flexibility into any bereavement leave policy and ensure managers are in a position to deal with requests for additional time off sensitively. Not all employees will grieve in the same way and there should be a range of choices on offer to employees to enable them to cope most effectively with their situation and return to work.

The key is to personalise the process and talk with bereaved employees to agree a plan that is best for them. It should include some paid time off from work, as well as the possibility of a phased return with remote working or reduced hours.

Bereavement leave is commonly bound by the relationship between the employee and the person who has died, with immediate family considered to be the qualifying criteria for the full amount of bereavement leave. But the loss of a friend or even a pet can be just as devastating. This is a challenge for employers who are keen to get the balance right and it's why there needs to be an element of flexibility in order for employers to address each case individually.

Typically, compassionate leave in the UK is 3-5 days long for the loss of an immediate family member (spouse, civil partner, partner, sibling and children), 2-3 days for less close relationships (grandparents, grandchildren, step parents) and 1 day for in-laws, aunts, uncles and cousins. This isn’t very generous considering a death in the family may involve travel, dealing with affairs and organising a funeral, as well as attending the funeral itself.

Businesses need to consider the impact of stingy compassionate leave on long-term commitment and productivity. A balanced, supportive and flexible approach is best for both employee and employer.

It’s the right thing to do.

Learn how Breathe can help you manage an employee's bereavement leave here.