Bereavement is something we all experience at some point in our lives, and consequently, every employer will be faced with supporting a bereaved employee. This often involves granting time off work for bereavement to allow time for healing.
It’s important to keep in mind that everyone reacts to grief in their own way. For example, some employees may require little to no time off because they want to ‘keep busy’, and for them, work is a much-needed distraction, but for others, it is simply not possible, and time away from work is needed, even bereavement counselling.
In this article, we explore the legal position regarding bereavement at work and look at some of the commonly asked questions we receive here at Avensure on how to handle what can be a very difficult aspect of managing people.
Are employees legally entitled to paid time off due to bereavement?
Currently, the only legal provision for paid time off in the event of a bereavement is in respect of parental bereavement leave.
Employees are entitled to up to 2 weeks of parental bereavement leave in the event of the death of a child under the age of 18 or a child who is stillborn after 24 weeks. In the event of a stillbirth, the entitlement to maternity/paternity/adoption leave and pay may also still apply.
During parental bereavement leave, the employee may be entitled to statutory parental bereavement pay at the current rates published annually.
The right to parental bereavement leave applies from day one of employment, with the right to parental leave pay applying to those who have 26 weeks of service at the point their child dies.
The right applies to birth parents, adoptive parents, the partner of the child’s parent if they lived with the child, anyone living at the same address as the child and who had responsibility for them for at least 4 weeks prior to their death, and the intended legal parent in the case of surrogacy.
Parental bereavement leave is a statutory right, and as such, employees must not suffer any detriment for asserting their right to time off for a bereavement or pay under these circumstances.
For bereavements that do not involve the death of a child, the legal position is less clear. There is no right to paid time off unless the employer has any contractual provisions for compassionate leave.
However, employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of time off in the event of an emergency or matters relating to dependents; this is usually referred to as time off for dependents and is usually considered unpaid compassionate leave unless the contract states otherwise.
When should an employee be expected to return to work following a bereavement?
Reactions to grief vary from person to person, and the employer should always be reasonable.
There is a danger in being too prescriptive and assigning set periods of time off based on the perceived closeness of the relationship because, like grief reactions, the nature and closeness of personal relationships vary too. For example, the death of an aunt, while upsetting, may not require an employee to have a bereavement absence if the relationship was fairly distant; however, in other instances, the personal relationship may have been very close, and the grief reaction may be felt very deeply.
Likewise, whilst consistency and fairness are key when it comes to managing people, where bereavement absence is concerned, employers should agree on time off with their employees on a case-by-case basis.
Rather than focusing on the time it should take for someone to return after time off work for bereavement, the focus should be on how the employee is feeling. Knowing their employer is supportive and is not attempting to rush them back to work is often key in assisting an employee to come to terms with their grief.
Can an employee be signed off sick due to a bereavement?
Yes, and they often are. A bereavement can render someone unfit to work, and therefore, the employee should be given the time they need to recover and any entitlements to sick pay afforded to them.
The Mental Health Foundation cites the following physical and mental reactions to grief:
- Sleep problems
- Appetite changes
- Problems with concentration and decision-making.
- Muscle pain
If an employee is in a role that requires the use of machinery, fatigue and lapses in concentration could have serious health and safety implications. Poor decision-making or physical discomfort will impact levels of productivity and may increase the risk of errors. Therefore, pressing someone to return to work from bereavement leave when they are not ready to do so may have serious implications for your business.
An employee has been signed off work with depression following a close family bereavement. They have been absent for some time; what can be done to manage this without appearing to be insensitive?
As stated above, bereavement can have a devastating impact on physical and mental health. It could exacerbate existing mental health conditions like depression, or someone’s reaction to bereavement could lead to a period of depression where they have never experienced depression previously.
The important thing to do is to keep good lines of communication open. There is a tendency to be cautious under these circumstances due to not wanting to appear insensitive, but part of the employer’s duty of care to an absent employee is to keep in reasonable contact with them.
In addition, a condition such as depression is classified as a disability under the Equality Act; therefore, the employer must ensure they adhere to their legal responsibilities to make reasonable adjustments to support the employee at work and while they are absent.
If the employee has been absent long-term, hopefully, they have access to the support they need, such as bereavement counselling. To assist the employer, the employee’s permission may be sought for a medical report or occupational health report to obtain some medical guidance on what can be done to help them return to work so that the employer can plan effectively and get a better idea of timescales.
Such recommendations may include a phased return to work, lighter duties, a temporary reduction in working hours, or extra breaks.
It’s important to keep in mind that a failure to explore and consider reasonable adjustments could leave the employer open to the risk of a discrimination claim on the grounds of disability.
Can an employee take annual leave if they need time off for a bereavement?
This is up to the employer and the employee.
It isn’t something the employer should unreasonably insist upon, and of course, it is up to the employer to authorise the booking of annual leave, but often, employees may book annual leave to attend a funeral, for example.
Often, the employee may be concerned about the financial impact of time off sick or unpaid compassionate leave; perhaps they have lost their partner, or they need to fund funeral costs. Therefore, it may be better for them to take some of their time off as paid annual leave.
Employers should consider each case individually, making sure that whatever is agreed is clearly communicated to avoid the unnecessary additional stress of miscommunication.
If an employee wants time off because a pet has died, where do I stand with this?
Those who have ever had a family pet will appreciate the huge sense of loss and grief that comes with losing a much-loved animal.
Unsurprisingly, the law does not refer to time off due to pet bereavement, but again, employers should be reasonable and show sensitivity. After all, pets can form part of our lives for many years, and some are much more than pets.
The loss of a service animal, for example, can be very difficult. Under these circumstances, where the employee has a disability, e.g., their hearing or guide dog has died, it is advisable to allow some time off to make any necessary arrangements arising from the loss of their service animal, as their ability to work may be impacted by the loss.
Again, there are no hard and fast rules concerning pet bereavement, but if someone’s cat has just died and they ask for a couple of days off—if it can be accommodated, perhaps as paid annual leave or unpaid compassionate leave —then consider it.
How should I handle the death of a colleague? Staff are too upset to work and want me to close for the day as a mark of respect, but it’s a very busy time, and I have business-critical deadlines to meet.
We often spend more time with our colleagues than our loved ones, and very close workplace relationships, such as lifelong friendships and even romantic relationships, can form at work. Therefore, the loss of a colleague can be very hard.
Again, there are no specific rules in place here for employee bereavement. The employer should, however, take as much care as they can when communicating the death of a colleague. For example, those who worked closely with the person who has died should be told in person where possible, as opposed to via email.
In terms of closing the business, it is up to individual employers, but it is not always possible, especially in sectors such as care or those offering 365-day/24-hour services.
Most employees will understand the difficulties their employers face under these circumstances, so the key thing is to work together. Give staff additional breaks where possible, and see if early finishes can be accommodated. In the case of very close working relationships, especially if their colleague’s passing is very sudden, allow them to take some time off work for bereavement.
Employees will also wish to attend the funeral of a colleague, but again, employers who have to continue to run a service will struggle to allow everyone to attend.
Under these circumstances, perhaps ask for volunteers to remain at work to allow their colleagues time off. If employees cannot be released for the whole day, maybe compromise and allow time off to attend the funeral but not the wake or any gathering taking place afterwards.
You could ask your workforce if they have any suggestions or thoughts on a way in which the organisation may pay their respects to their colleague separately, such as a collection to a charity that was important to them or a private gathering of some sort.
Once someone has returned to work following a period of absence due to bereavement, that doesn’t mean they will no longer require support. For example, in the years following their bereavement, they may request time off to observe anniversaries. They may find certain times of the year difficult, such as Christmas, particularly their first Christmas without their loved one. Employers need to be mindful of and sensitive to this and aim to be as accommodating as possible.
As always, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to bereavement at work. Remember, our advice line is available for any queries arising out of employee bereavement or any other queries related to HR and employment law. Click here to get in touch: Avensure Contact!