Compassionate leave: A definitive guide

Compassionate leave header image

Serious events that require employees to take time off of work are inevitable. In these situations, people need time away from their work responsibilities to grieve or care for a loved one.

As an employer, this sensitive matter should be handled with care. It’s important to ensure you give your employees the support they need to take care of personal affairs and return to work within a fair and reasonable timeframe.

In this guide, we’ll talk about how to create a compassionate leave policy that helps your employees while also keeping your other staff and your business needs in mind.

Table of contents

What is compassionate leave?

Compassionate leave is allowed time off work when something upsetting or traumatic happens unexpectedly in life. It can be paid or unpaid time off, depending on what you as the employer decide to offer.

The most common example of compassionate leave is the serious illness of a loved one. However, other affecting circumstances such as injury or accident or being the victim of a crime can result in an employee needing to take an absence from work.

Bereavement, which falls under the umbrella of compassionate leave, applies only to the death of a family member or loved one. It differs from compassionate leave as it refers specifically to the loss of life whereas compassionate leave encompasses any and all harrowing circumstances.

In the UK, there is no legal obligation for you to offer compassionate leave to your staff. However, employees are legally entitled to time off to care for dependents, which is somebody who depends on them for care Contingent on the circumstances, they may request time off to care for a dependent, and while you must grant it, it’s up to you to provide paid or unpaid time away. There’s also no set time period of how long they are legally allowed time off.

Let’s unpack this further.

Taking time off work for dependents

All employees are allowed to take time off to deal with an emergency regarding dependents. There is no set time limit an employee can take off for dependents. The government recommends talking with your staff to agree upon a reasonable amount of time off, which will vary based on the situation at hand.

According to GOV.UK, a dependent could be a “spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone else who depends on you for care.” An emergency could be any of the following:

  • The death of a loved one
  • Illness, injury or assault – including mental or physical illness
  • Having a baby – if the dependent goes into labour unexpectedly (if you are the baby’s parent, you are eligible for additional time off after the birth through paternity or parental leave)
  • A breakdown in childcare or problems at a child’s school
  • Arranging long-term care for children or other relatives
  • Arranging a funeral

There is no limit on the amount of leave you can grant or how many times an employee can leave work for an emergency. However, both can be set out in a compassionate leave policy so that there is a structure in place.

If time off for dependents starts to impact an employee’s performance but does not fall under the definition of compassionate leave, it’s a good idea to sit down with them and discuss their circumstances.

It may be that they need to take a period of unpaid leave, or that they need more flexible working hours to free up time to spend with family.

For example, if a parent is regularly leaving work in the afternoons due to being let down by an unreliable childcare provider, the option to start earlier in the mornings and finish after lunch will free up time so that they no longer need childcare. 

Taking time off work for a bereavement

Compassionate leave is often used interchangeably with ‘bereavement leave’. As mentioned above, while compassionate leave covers time off for all serious and traumatic events, bereavement leave is specifically for the death of a loved one.

Like compassionate leave, there is no current legal obligation that states you have to offer bereavement leave to staff. But this will change in April 2020, when the Parental Bereavement Law (Pay and Leave) is introduced. This will entitle employed parents to two weeks of paid leave if they lose a child under the age of 18.

Why should you offer compassionate leave?

While no laws explicitly state you must provide a policy that supports employees during a traumatic time, it’s best practice to have one in place.

A structured policy can make a world of difference for your employees. Here’s why.

1. It shows employees that you care

According to a report by the NCPC, 56% of people said they would consider quitting their job if their employer did not provide proper support during bereavement.

A compassionate leave policy is an essential part of that support.

It shows that you’ve considered the importance of responding to upsetting circumstances. And it’s a sign that you care and understand that – should an employee lose a loved one or experience a traumatic event – work needs to be put aside to grieve or manage personal feelings.

Even if an employee never needs to request time off, knowing such a policy exists sends out a reassuring message.

It reduces additional stress

Anything you can do to alleviate friction around taking compassionate leave reduces stress for employees at an already difficult time. Having a policy in place makes everything surrounding the need to take time away from work clear. A strong policy will outline:

  • When an employee needs to contact you to request leave
  • How an employee needs to contact you (phone, letter, email, etc.)
  • How much leave they’re allowed
  • How much pay they’ll receive during their leave

With that information written down, employees know where they stand and what procedure they need to take from the moment they leave work.

Everyone gets fair treatment

A policy that treats everybody with the same respect and care is far superior to offering one on a discretionary basis.

For example, with a discretionary policy, you may subconsciously favour employees that have worked for you for many years and have been loyal throughout their employment. When that longstanding employee requests leave, you may grant him two weeks off with full pay. 

Perhaps a week later, another bereaved employee who is new to the company also requests time off. In this case, you may be inclined to grant two weeks off, but with only three paid days off.

While the newer employee may be initially grateful, if he comes to find out that the long-standing employee was granted more paid time off, he may feel upset and resent the way he was treated in comparison.

Having a policy that details how much leave and pay an employee will receive helps to avoid disputes, ensuring everyone is treated fairly and consistently.

How to create a compassionate leave policy

Before you start penning a compassionate leave policy, it’s important to recognise the need for flexibility. Every situation is different and the amount of time off needed will depend on the individual and their circumstances.

For example, NIDirect suggests that one or two days’ leave is enough time for an employee to deal with an emergency in most cases. But in the case of bereavement, especially the loss of an immediate family member, a week or two off work feels more appropriate.

And while one employee may feel well enough to return to work after a few days off, rushing another back too early may affect their performance.

Therefore, it’s important that you implement a policy that fits around the varying needs of your employees.

With flexibility in mind, here are our tips for developing your compassionate leave guidelines.

1. Factor in the statutory rights of employees

Make it clear within your policy that all employees are allowed a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work for emergencies under the Employment Rights Act 1996. While the law is vague, it’s best practice to define how you interpret reasonable time off so that your employees have a clear picture of their benefits in such scenarios.

Within that, detail who classes as a dependent. It’s best to follow the Government’s definition of dependents, which, as mentioned above, is a “spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone else who depends on you for care.”

You might also want to list the above-mentioned instances that can be classed as an emergency so that employees know whether or not time off falls under the category of compassionate leave. Be as clear as possible in your policy to avoid any confusion down the line.

2. Define how much leave should be granted

The average number of days granted for compassionate leave in the UK is five. 

Some companies choose to offer more if resources allow for it. For example, Facebook, employees can take up to 20 days of paid leave if an immediate family member dies and up to 10 days to grieve for an extended family member. The company also offers six weeks’ leave to care for a sick relative and three days of ‘family sick time’ for employees to take care of short-term family illnesses, such as a child coming down with a bug. This was introduced after Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, lost her husband in 2015.

How many days you offer will depend on your company structure and resources. Can you afford to pay an employee 20 days leave? Can the business cope without them at work for an extended length of time?

When deciding, account for time to grieve in the case of bereavement, as well as the following factors:

  • Mental and physical health
  • Time needed to arrange a funeral
  • Time travelling to a funeral
  • Time to arrange care for dependents
  • The sorting out of affairs (applying for benefits, arranging housing adjustments, informing creditors of changes in circumstances, etc.)

If additional time off is needed beyond the set days, you could grant some days of unpaid leave. Beyond that, time could be granted on an individual basis to be taken as annual leave or as parental leave if the employee has children.

You might also choose to define what you consider to be ‘reasonable’ time off to care for dependents to avoid any confusion.

For example, your policy could include 15 days of emergency leave per employee, per year. Once these days have been used, employees could take allocated holidays or unpaid days off.

3. Decide on whether to grant leave on a paid or unpaid basis

While bereavement leave and compassionate leave vary slightly, the majority of companies offer compensation during leave of all types. This eases the burden on employees during an already difficult time.

According to ACAS’ ‘Managing bereavement in the workplace’ guide, 97% of organisations offer some or all paid bereavement leave.

ACAS’ research also shows that 61% of employers vary the amount of paid bereavement leave on how close the employee is to the deceased.

Putting this approach into practice, you might offer five days of paid leave for loss, serious illness or a traumatic event involving a close family member (child, spouse, parent or partner). And two or three days of paid leave for events involving extended family or dependents (grandparents, in-laws, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc.).

4. Define the circumstances of compassionate leave

List the range of events that fall under compassionate leave. This list should include the names of your employee’s dependents for whom you would grant your employees leave if anybody on their list were affected by death, illness or another traumatic event.

As well as family, think about including close friends or other dependents that an employee may care for, such as an elderly neighbour. In many cases, these relationships are as important as family.

5. Consider a minimum length of service

While you should avoid granting compassionate leave based on role or status, you may want to stipulate a minimum length of service that employees must reach before being given paid leave.

For instance, you might state that any employee who has been with the company for over one year is given paid leave, while employees with less than one years’ service are granted leave on an unpaid basis. All employees, regardless of whether they have been employed for under or over a year, should be treated the same and given the same amount of leave without any special exceptions.

6. Define how employees notify you

How do you want employees to let you know they wish to take compassionate leave?

Is a phone call or text okay? Can they send you a letter or email? Or do you need to see them face-to-face?

Make sure that the methods of contact are set out clearly.

Should you require proof of bereavement, list out the acceptable forms (e.g. obituary, funeral program, or dependents name, date of death and relationship to the employee) so that employees know the information they need to provide. Asking for proof of bereavement is not required by law, but is something you can add to your compassionate leave policy if you feel it is important.

7. Train managers on how to handle leave sympathetically

While it’s not part of the policy itself, guiding managers on the sensitivity surrounding compassionate leave can help ensure the employee is given the support they need.

As department managers are the people who’ll be dealing with employees, they should be confident on:

  • The information within the policy and how to communicate it to employees
  • How to apply the policy consistently and fairly whilst considering the needs of the individual
  • Understanding how upsetting and/or traumatic events can affect an employee’s performance and attendance
  • Any counselling or assistance available to employees

You should also encourage managers to maintain a dialogue with employees during their leave. If your company is smaller, or if you have the capacity, you can also support your managers who are filling this role, or maintain a dialogue yourself.

This can be as simple as checking in on how they are but can go further by establishing when they’re able to return and what work will look like when they do.

For example, if an employee’s loved one becomes seriously ill they may be thrust into the role of carer, which may require them to switch to a flexible working routine. Showing support through regular contact can ease any anxiety they have about returning to regularly scheduled working hours.

Create a comprehensive written document that outlines all scenarios that managers can access at any time.

Making your policy available to employees

Your compassionate leave policy should be written into employee contracts and/or a company handbook that is given to all employees when they join the company.

It should also be accessible at any time as a digital and paper document. Advise your employees to read through the policy again once they’ve requested leave to ensure they are up to speed on the details and ask any questions before commencing their time away.

Giving employees easy access to your policy helps to:

  • Prevent awkward conversations about why the time off is needed
  • Stop managers being faced with the difficult decision of whether to grant leave

Compassionate leave advice for employees

If you’re reading this as an employee in need of compassionate leave, there are things you can do to make the process of taking time off easier on yourself and your family.

Check your employment contract or handbook

If something happens that warrants leave, refer to your employment contract or company handbook for information on how to apply for leave, along with how much time is granted and whether that time is paid or unpaid.

If that information isn’t included, ask your employer for a copy of the company’s compassionate leave policy, or chat with them about the details around leave.

Know your legal right to time off

As mentioned earlier, whether or not compassionate leave is granted does not affect your legal right to take reasonable time off for an emergency involving a dependant.

How much time off you’re entitled to and whether you’ll be paid is at the discretion of your employer. But if anything happens to someone in your family or a person that depends on you for care, you’re allowed to be absent from work whilst you deal with the situation.

Talk to your employer

If you need compassionate leave to grieve or care for a loved one, talk to your employer as soon as possible. They’re there to help.

While discussing your situation can be difficult, your employer will be able to advise you on the guidelines around compassionate leave and the best course of action.

For example, if you feel that you need longer than the time granted for leave, you may be able to apply for a period of annual or unpaid leave.

Your employer will also be able to talk to you about available assistance (e.g. helplines and counselling). It’s important to find the right balance of time off to avoid:

  • Returning to work too early, which can lead to negative performance that results in a period of sick leave
  • Spending too long away from work, which can lead to loneliness or isolation

In the unlikely event that your manager is being unsupportive after you’ve requested leave, you can have a confidential conversation with your HR manager. They’re in place to support and mediate sensitive situations like these.

Apply for flexible working

If the circumstances that have resulted in a period of compassionate leave have changed your responsibilities, you might be able to switch to flexible working hours.

For example, illness to a relative might mean you no longer have childcare. Or you may need to look after an elderly parent who is living on their own.

You can apply for flexible working if you’ve been with the same employer for at least 26 weeks. While, your employer doesn’t have to agree to your request, in the majority of instances they’ll be supportive of your situation and do what they can to accommodate you.

If an employer attempts to fire you over flexible leave, you have the legal right to complain to an Employment Tribunal. As for if and when to swap back to regular hours and the path to resuming standard duties, that is between you and your employer. We recommend ironing out these details before you begin the leave to ensure it’s a smooth return.

If you’ve been refused compassionate leave

It’s rare for an employer to refuse a request for compassionate leave. However, if the leave isn’t granted, you can use holidays or take unpaid leave instead. 

If your health is suffering as a result of your circumstances – due to depression or anxiety following bereavement or trauma, for example – you may be entitled to statutory or occupational sick pay. Talk to your GP and let your employer know how you’re feeling. You can also get advice from ACAS and the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Wrapping up

Illness, bereavement and emergencies are likely to affect us all at some point in our working lives. ACAS research suggests that adopting a compassionate and supportive approach during difficult times “demonstrates that the organisation values its employees, helps build commitment, reduce sickness absence, and retain the workforce.”

Use the tips in this post to create a flexible and fair compassionate leave policy that works in the best interests of your business. But more importantly, gives your employees the support they need during leave and after their return to work.

Photo by Leon Biss, published on Unsplash

Darren Bates-Hirst

VP People & Culture

Tide Team

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