At Ashes Memorial Jewellery we are more cognisant than most businesses about the need to be clear on our policy on bereavement leave. We see each day that loss is the most challenging time for employees. Your response as a business will need to acknowledge the legal demands concerning bereavement leave. However, it is also essential to consider your approach to human resources and how a sensitive policy to bereavement leave could foster strong relationships with staff.
What is bereavement leave?
You might know bereavement leave better as compassionate leave. This is the period off-work agreed between an employee and the employer following the death of a close family member or loved one. Bereavement leave is meant to offer individuals time to complete all practical tasks related to death, including going to the funeral and organising the execution of the will.
It also happens that this period also covers a time when the individual will be most acutely suffering from grief. It is likely that your official bereavement leave policy will only cover the immediate aftermath and so only the beginning of this grieving process.
The law and bereavement leave
The law is either helpfully or unhelpfully vague, depending on your viewpoint. The Employment Rights Act 1996 states that employers are obligated to give employees a “reasonable” number of days off unpaid following the death of family or a dependent. This means it is up to the business and the individual involved to work together to define what is reasonable. This is unhelpful in that there is no fixed number of days that would make it explicit the minimum obligation. However, it is helpful in that businesses and employees to work together to define reasonable in a particular situation.
Within the law, family members are defined as spouse, partner, child, parent, brother, sister, grandparent, aunt and uncle, niece and nephew, or any individual the employee is responsible for caring for. Outside this group of people, there is little help from the law when setting the parameters for bereavement.
It is fair to say that some people have friends whom they consider closer than family and would indeed be a more significant loss. However, this friend might not be covered under the bereavement policy of a company. This vacuity is something that businesses need to consider when writing a policy.
How much time should be offered?
As stated, the law does not dictate a set time that an employee can take off. Usually, the employee will use discretion and will adapt their reaction to the situation. Some businesses may be happy to take each situation on a case-by-case basis.
For the sake of clarity, it might be a good idea for a business to stipulate the number of days it is expected an individual to take. Most companies permit between two and five days, noting this is to give the individual time to deal with the immediate practical aftermath of the event.
You are not obligated to pay the individual for the time they take off for bereavement. This lack of obligation could be where an employer considers if a sound HR policy is to offer a certain number of paid days – or to insist that all the days are taken unpaid. Whatever your decision, it is essential to make this explicit in the staff handbook or staff contract.
Bereavement leave is separate from other types of leave, such as sickness or holiday. The amount of bereavement leave an employee chooses to take cannot formally run out. However, there is a time when you will need to work with the employee to consider a return to work plan and possibly consider referral to occupational health to facilitate this return to work.
You have the right to refuse bereavement leave and require the individual to return. However, each case should be evaluated for the impact of such a choice, as it could lead to an employment tribunal.
You may wish to ask for proof of the death before permitting bereavement leave. Obviously, with the initial notification from the employee, you may want to show some sensitivity and not immediately request an obituary, funeral or death notice. However, it should be written somewhere in your policy that at some point, the individual will need to produce this evidence.
It is also a good idea to record somewhere whom an employee should inform and using what method. It could be that the event itself is an emergent one and outside office hours, at which point the individual will need guidance from your company policy.