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What is Compassionate Leave and Bereavement Leave?

6 February 2023 7 min read

Stressed businessman rubbing his eyes whilst at his laptop

Compassionate leave and bereavement leave are perhaps the most sensitive issues for any HR department to manage. Get it right, and you’ll help someone cope with one of the most difficult periods of their life. But get it wrong, and you could cause upset, resentment, and maybe even lasting truama.

We put together this essential guide to help you devise a policy that works for everyone.

What is Compassionate Leave?

Compassionate leave is a form of absence taken when an employee has to deal with a sensitive or upsetting situation.

Example situations could include:

  • When a close friend or family member is seriously ill or seriously injured
  • If they’ve been a victim of a crime
  • If they’ve witnessed or been involved in a traumatic event

What’s the difference between Compassionate Leave and Bereavement Leave?

It’s common for both phrases to mean the same thing, but bereavement leave is specific to taking time off work following the death of a loved one. Meanwhile, compassionate leave is the time taken off to look after someone close like a relative or dependant.

Why is Compassionate Leave Such a Difficult Issue?

It would be unkind and unethical to refuse employees the time they need to deal with upsetting situations.

But the problem with these sorts of situations is that they’re unexpected. They can affect any employee at any time. They strike without warning and the impact can be devastating.

So this sort of leave is almost always taken at extremely short notice. Your business won’t have time to prepare for the absence. In many cases, you’ll have no idea when the employee will be able to return to work, and in what sort of state they’ll be when they can return.

This can cause major disruption. Other members of the team might be able to cover for the absence, but this can lead to increased stress and if the absence lasts a while, a simmering culture of resentment. This resentment won’t necessarily be for the absent employee, but you; for not adequately preparing for such emergencies.

So compassionate leave can be hugely disruptive, and because emergencies can happen to anyone at any time, it’s extremely difficult to prepare for this sort of absence.

But with a good policy, you can minimize the potential for disruption while still giving your employees time to react and recover.

What Does the Law Say About Compassionate Leave?

Under UK law, employees are allowed to take time off to deal with “an emergency involving a dependent”.

There is no legal limit to the number of times an employee can take time off for dependents, though the government advises that “your employer may want to talk to you if they think the time off is affecting your work.”

UK law also doesn’t specify that employers must pay for this sort of leave (employees are advised to check their contract), but it does specify that this type of leave isn’t allowed for situations that employees know about beforehand. For instance, an employee is allowed to take time off to rush to a hospital after an emergency, but they’re not necessarily allowed to take time off to take a relative to the hospital for a pre-booked appointment. For this, they will have to take a different sort of leave, such as parental leave.

The government describes compassionate leave as “paid or unpaid leave for emergency situations”, and they advise that it may be given “if you aren’t given time off for dependents”. But once again, they advise employees to check their contracts or handbooks for more details.

So as far as the law is concerned, you must give your employees the time they need to deal with emergencies and other traumatic events. But how you manage this, and even whether or not you pay employees for this time, is completely down to you.

For businesses that have offices in multiple countries, it is important you know what the rules are around compassionate leave in the countries in which  you are based. To help we have created a holiday compliance guide with Ireland’s absence rules and regulations as well as the UK, Netherlands, and France absence rules and regulations.

How to Create a Compassionate Leave Policy

Some businesses don’t have compassionate leave policies. Whether this is an oversight or a conscious decision, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Even your most loyal and hardworking employee will think nothing of leaving work immediately in the event of a family emergency. It’s not their fault if you have no contingency plans for an unexpected and indefinite absence. As far as they’re concerned, any losses or disruption you suffer as a result of their emergency will be down to you. And if you treat your employees with contempt during this difficult time, you can be sure that they’ll be on the lookout for a new job before long.

So what should your compassionate leave policy look like? Facebook is exemplary when it comes to compassionate leave. They offer 20 days of paid compassionate leave if an immediate family member dies, 10 days for an extended family member, and up to six weeks paid leave to care for ill relatives.

Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband in 2015, so she understands as well as anyone how necessary it is to take time off work to deal with trauma. “Companies that stand by the people who work for them do the right thing and the smart thing,” she said. “It helps them serve their mission, live their values, and improve their bottom line by increasing the loyalty and performance of their workforce.”

If you’re as generous as Facebook when it comes to compassionate leave, you can expect a more positive company culture with improved staff loyalty, and maybe even lower staff turnover.

Are You Ready to Compile Your Compassionate Leave Policy?

You might think that you cannot afford to offer the same sort of compassionate leave as Facebook. Yet a generous leave policy will send a strong signal to your employees that you care about their lives and their wellbeing.

In any case, it’s a good idea to have a policy in place – a set period to help employees cope with trying times, and a good plan for helping them settle back into work once they return.

But how can you safeguard your business against the disruption that this sort of absence can bring?

For this, you’ll need an absence policy. This is a clearly defined plan for minimizing the impact that unplanned absences can have on your company.

Katrina Bennett People Director at edays
February 6, 2023

Katrina is edays' own People Director with significant UK and international experience in delivering people strategy and value-adding HR solutions across a range of organisations and sectors (including Arriva, Boots, Rolls Royce, the utility and charity sectors). Katrina has over 20 years of experience in Human Resources and is CIPD qualified.