Bereavement Leave in the UK – This Is What You Need To Know


Candle lightUnderstanding bereavement leave can be difficult, especially if you are seeking to understand it while grieving for someone you have lost.  The period soon after death is challenging, and you will be expected to combat some complicated emotions.  It would be unreasonable, in these initial moments, to assume that you work too.  Some laws protect you in these moments and many employers have policies that are clear about the time offered for the immediate aftermath and the funeral.

Here we provide a basic guide to bereavement leave, in the hope that we can relieve you of this one worry at this challenging time.

What is bereavement leave?

You may have heard bereavement leave called compassionate leave.  They are the same thing.  They refer to a period when you can be away from the workplace due to the death of a close relative.  The time is agreed between you, the employee, and your manager.  The bereavement leave will likely cover the initial period of emergency and shock, where you will be expected to make all arrangements.  However, you will also probably be given time for the funeral too.

You cannot expect that your employer gives time for the whole period of grieving.  Likely, bereavement leave will only cover the beginning moments of your sense of loss.  Grief can take a long time to recede and you may need to seek advice from a doctor about time off for sickness.

The law

Depending on your viewpoint, the law is either rightfully or unhelpfully vague.  The Employment Right Act of 1996 merely requires an organization to offer a reasonable amount of time.  The amount of time needs to be agreed between both parties.  There are no minimum days in law to protect the family. 

The reasons for the vague statement are apparent – no two situations are the same.  One family member may die, and you only require a short time to deal with the funeral.  Someone else in your family dying could result in you requiring long term and support to deal with the overwhelming sense of loss.  It is difficult for a law to cater for both scenarios.  Therefore, the employee and employer must come to an understanding between them.

ACAS has offered guidance.  They note that two days' leave is considered a reasonable amount of time following a death.  Studies suggest that most companies follow this advice.  Some will offer this as paid leave and others will extend the two unpaid days to five – helping the person take a week between the death and returning to routine.

The law defines immediate family.  It includes the spouse, partner, parent, siblings, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  It can also cover someone who is your dependent.  Even though you may have friends who you consider closer than these family members, the law does not cover these people.

Company best practice

Companies must have a policy for bereavement leave.  It should be clearly defined in the staff handbook and available to read by managers and workers alike.  Human Resource managers are aware of the importance of such a policy when ensuring consistency across an organization.  If a manager is given too much discretion, then it puts them into a challenging situation when dealing with individuals.

Companies also need to be clear on how they record the absence.  If the person is given bereavement leave, whether paid or unpaid, this cannot be marked as illness.  Prolonged or continuous illness can result in dismissal.  The time given for bereavements should not be included in this category.

If an employee takes more time, you may want to consider helping them by rearranging holiday time.  Alternatively, negotiating a back to work plan to help them gradually return to duties might be another caring option.

At some point, the person may be better off back at work.  A return to regular routines often helps us, as we stop living in the tragedy of the event.  Therefore, assisting the person in getting back to work – doing simple things like informing colleagues for them – can make a world of difference to the recovery from grief.

Keeping communication clear

Of most importance, when you are dealing with grief, it is being transparent in expectations and contact.  As an individual experiencing a loss, you will need to call your work.  Write down the critical details on a piece of paper when calling, so you do not forget vital information.  Then agree a time when you will call again to discuss the return to work and other arrangements.