Bereavement leave: do you know your entitlements

The death of a loved one is a stressful and traumatic time as it is without suddenly having to worry about whether you can take time off work. Find out what your entitlements are in our guide to bereavement and compassionate leave below.

What is compassionate leave?

Compassionate leave is agreed time off work for people who find themselves in an unexpected, difficult circumstance, which may prevent them from carrying out their job effectually. This includes time off for a bereavement and arranging or attending a funeral.

Compassionate leave entitlement

The Employment Rights Act 1996, which is applicable to England, Wales & Scotland, entitles all workers to reasonable time off for an emergency involving a dependent. A dependant can be a partner, spouse, child, grandchild, parent or someone who depends on you for care.

Reasonable time off generally refers to the time required to address practical matters following a death, such as arranging a funeral. UK law does not stipulate precisely how much ‘time off’ should be granted. A common amount given is 2 to 5 days, and time to grieve is typically not accounted for. A dependent is defined as anyone who reasonably relies on you for help in an emergency.

However, ultimately, the amount of time off granted is at the discretion of your employer and will vary from company to company. There are likely many factors your employer will take into consideration, such as how much time other employees have been approved in similar circumstances and your relation to the person that died. Most companies should have a documented compassionate leave policy, detailed either in your employment contract or a staff handbook. Tell your employer as soon as possible how much time you will need so it can be agreed.

Compassionate leave vs bereavement leave

In the UK, we tend to use the term compassionate leave and bereavement leave interchangeably. However, bereavement leave refers specifically to taking time off following the death of a loved one. Alternatively, compassionate leave is a broader term and can be offered when you need time off to look after a sick relative or dependent. Their illness or injury does not necessarily have to be life threatening. In the UK, there is no statutory bereavement leave and employers are not legally obliged to offer it. However, you and your partner may be eligible for Parental Bereavement Leave and Statutory Parental Bereavement Pay if you have a child who has died under the age of 18 or had a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Are you entitled to paid compassionate leave?

Employers are not legally obliged to offer paid compassionate leave; however, some may choose to.

How to ask for compassionate leave

Many people find meeting their employer face to face early on useful and try to have your contract (or document which details a compassionate leave policy) to hand. Unlike requesting time off via an email or letter, meeting face to face leaves little room for ambiguity. If there is any uncertainty around your compassionate leave entitlement, this presents an opportunity to ask for clarification. If your employer suggests you “take as much time as you need”, this is a very general statement it’s usually sensible to ask for specifics with regards to time off. This will help manage your expectations and your employers. After you have had your face to face meeting, you can put your request for bereavement leave in writing.

Will you have to provide proof?

If your company has a compassionate leave policy the correct procedure for employees/employers to adhere to should be documented here. It may be the case that, yes, some employers ask for evidence of the reason an employee is taking this leave (i.e. an obituary or funeral notice).

What if you’re refused compassionate leave?

Compassionate leave entitlement is a statutory right. However, it is up to the employer how much additional time off they grant you (above and beyond the emergency time off they must give you). It’s highly unlikely your employer will refuse you statutory compassionate leave. In the event that they do, you should seek advice from your trade union, citizens advice or ACAS. You can also complain to an employment tribunal.

What if you need long term leave?

Be honest with your employer. If you are struggling and need longer to deal with your grief, then request that your compassionate leave is extended. They might agree to this but be prepared for the fact that this time could be unpaid.

Plus, while bereavement itself doesn’t count as an illness, the depression and anxiety that it triggers for many people can be considered so. Therefore, you might be entitled to statutory or occupational sick pay.

Other rights and laws to be aware of

  • The Parental Bereavement Act 2018 entitles bereaved parents of a child under 18 years of age or are stillborn after 24 weeks' pregnancy to 2 weeks leave. This leave is to be taken within 56 days of death. It also entitles you to statutory bereavement pay, provided you have sufficient length of service and earnings. It will recognise that not only biological parents of a child assume parental responsibility.
  • The Maternity Benefit Act 2017 means that if your baby is stillborn after 24 weeks, or if your baby dies while you are still on maternity leave, you will still retain full entitlement to maternity rights.
  • The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from being discriminated against on account of religious beliefs, marital status and disability. If, say, you are not permitted time off to observe a religious custom or funeral rite you could potentially dispute this, and it could be considered indirect religious discrimination.
  • If the death of a loved one has resulted in a drastic change to your circumstances and meant that you’ve assumed new carer responsibilities, you have a legal right to make a flexible working request. This is provided you’ve worked for your employer for 26 weeks. For instance, if your partner has died and you are now sole carer for your child this is obviously a major change to your circumstances. Ideally, most employers will be empathetic and supportive, but they do not have to grant this request for flexi working.

Read more about dealing with grief in the workplace here.