Compassionate leave is perhaps the most sensitive issue 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 trauma.

We put together this essential guide to compassionate leave 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.

Here are some examples of when an employee might need to take compassionate leave:

  • After the death of a loved one
  • 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

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 are able to 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 for you; for not adequately preparing for such emergency situations.

So compassionate leave can be hugely disruptive, and because emergency situations can happen to anyone at any time, there’s not really any way to prepare for this sort of absence.

But with a good compassionate leave policy, you can minimise 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 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 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.

You’re responsible for creating your own compassionate leave policy. So what does a good compassionate leave policy look like?

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? We recently looked to the world’s most successful companies for inspiration on employee wellbeing programs. So let’s do the same for compassionate leave policies.

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 a 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 compassionate 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 of time 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 minimising the impact that unplanned absences can have on your company.

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