Career Woman

Bereavement leave – this is what you need to know


Bereavement leave is such a tricky topic for employers.  Dealing with someone who has experienced loss can be challenging.  You have the practicalities of keeping your business moving forward.  The person who has experienced loss may have an essential skillset that hampers day to day working and even long-term strategic growth.

However, no-one can doubt the inexpressible pain of losing someone close to you, and this is one of the first things to understand in how to cope with losing your spouse, a close family member or a friend. The shock, in the first instance, where you try to grasp what “dead” really means is challenging. Then, that sense of being adrift, the frustration of not being able to change this reality, the sense of loneliness when you cannot speak to this person as you once did.

There are no magic bullets to cope with grief. However, there are some courses of action that can help us a lot:

  • Denial and distraction can be a part of the first phase of grief. What is important, however, is that you are ready to let your emotions run free when they want out. Don’t suppress the sadness; let it happen.
  • For some people, alcohol and medication play a role in suppressing feelings. Even if this can help, you should recognize the potential for addiction in good time.
  • Seek solace in friends and family. If you don’t want advice, say so too. The closeness and perhaps also an open ear from your loved ones gives you the strength to cope better with your grief. This is especially helpful to find your way back from the listlessness to everyday life.
  • Create specific time windows in which you can think back to the deceased and go about your everyday life as soon as you are ready. Many people find small rituals helpful, such as lighting a candle for a loved one in the evening.

Of course, when it comes to your work, bereavement leave is important, and this is a delicate balance between the need of the business and the needs of the individual.  Although it may feel callous to put business interests in this picture, there is a reality here that must be faced.  Bereavement, or compassionate leave, is as much an issue for Human Resources as recruitment, onboarding and the exit interview.

Law and bereavement leave

As an employer, you may feel that the law is of little help.  The Employment Rights Act (1996) merely states that reasonable time should be given to someone who has lost immediate family.  What reasonable means is open to extremes of interpretation.  ACAS offered some support to leaders, suggesting that reasonable should be two days in the immediate aftermath of the death.  Most employers adhere to this guidance, though some extend this to five days.

Whether this is paid leave or not is also up to the business.  The law only classifies bereavement leave in this way to keep it distinct from sick leave.  Absenteeism can be a reason for disciplinary action, whereas bereavement leave cannot.

The law also only dictates there must be reasonable bereavement leave for immediate family.  Immediate family includes partners, parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  It also covers those who are dependents of the individual.  It does not cover close friends or significant others.  Therefore, it is up to the discretion of the manager whether bereavement leave or leave for the funeral is offered here.

Guidance on bereavement leave

If you are the CEO or owner of a business, or in charge of HR, the best practice requires that you have a policy covering bereavement leave.  Leaving a manager vulnerable to having to decide case by case what should happen in the event of a loss is likely to cause difficulties, inconsistencies and further upset.  Therefore, everyone should be aware at the moment they start at your workplace precisely what is allowed and not allowed in the event of a death.

The individual suffering loss will face the most significant issue.  Understanding when and when you do not need bereavement leave is challenging.  You may think that you can never return to work again – such is the sense of grief.  However, there will come a time when it is good for the individual to get back into a routine.  Being at home with nothing to do than sit in memories can result in more grief.  The employee with be socially isolated from colleagues and will not have the distraction of work.  However, if they are too distracted by pain to return to work, then it could be more damaging to return.   This inconsistency of experience is the reason the law has to be vague and why the manager must be skilled and sensitive when supporting an employee.

Asking for bereavement leave

Hopefully, the company will have a policy that makes it clear who you inform in the event of a death and the need for bereavement leave.  There should be a phone number, maybe even for out-of-hours, that be called in this emergency.

Telling your manager can be awkward.  Therefore, you are best to have written the details of the conversation onto a piece of paper.  All the essential information will then be readily available if your brain fogs.

At some point, your employer may ask for proof of death.  This might feel heartless but is essential for your records and for ensuring the days off can be classified as bereavement leave and not sickness.  You can offer a copy of the notice of the death or use the notice printed in the newspaper.

In short

Bereavement leave is a challenging issue.  The law is vague because no two situations are the same.  Therefore, each company must have a policy that is known by all employees.  Hopefully, the rest will be covered by the natural compassion we all possess when we see someone suffering from grief.

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