"We would advise that if an employee is open with their employer as to any support that may be needed, the employer is then better placed to provide the support required."
A leading law firm has warned employers that dealing with grief in the workplace needs to be sensitively handled and is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Vanessa Bell, employment partner at Ipswich-based law firm Prettys, explains that while there is little legislation surrounding staff needing compassionate leave following a bereavement, employers need to handle every situation individually and in a sympathetic way.
“There are many things to take into consideration; the circumstances around the death, how close the staff member was to the deceased, as well as their ability to deal with the grief,” Vanessa said.
“Dealing with the loss of a loved one, be it a family member, friend or colleague, is a tragic circumstance and employers need to understand that people can be affected in many different ways.”
There is currently no legislation covering compassionate leave from work in the event of bereavement or family illness in the UK.
The Employment Rights Act 1996 gives an employee the right to have “reasonable” time off work to deal with an emergency involving a dependant.
However, in circumstances involving a bereavement, this statutory right to unpaid “reasonable” leave only applies to enable an employee to deal with logistical matters which arise as a result of a death, such as arranging and attending a funeral. It is not a right to compassionate leave.
Vanessa suggests that employers have in place a clear bereavement leave policy in their staff handbooks.
“The policy should outline what is to be expected from both sides, considering issues such as leave duration, pay and return to work support if possible,” she said.
“In many cases, employers will still pay staff for their time off during grieving periods. While that is at their discretion, we suggest there should be consistency and that it is outlined in the policy for employees to follow.”
She added: “Other potential legal issues arise if an employee experiences mental health difficulties as a consequence of bereavement.
“If a member of staff suffers with anxiety or depression as a result, then this could potentially be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010, which then places employers under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove workplace barriers.
“The Equality Act also protects employees from discrimination because of their religion or belief. Many religions have bereavement requirements, for example, mourning periods.
“Employers need to try and accommodate religious beliefs and customs where reasonable to do so. This may include an employee requesting a period of leave to travel abroad to attend a funeral.
“In our experience, issues tend to arise where communications breakdown and an employee has not properly explained to their employer why they may need additional leave following a bereavement or if they are struggling with a return to the workplace.
“We would advise that if an employee is open with their employer as to any support that may be needed, the employer is then better placed to provide the support required.”
New laws set to be introduced in April 2020 will give employed parents a statutory right to two weeks’ leave from work, with pay, following the loss of a child under the age of 18.
“Whilst ACAS has provided some guidance for employers on managing bereavement in the workplace, there will still be little legislation covering bereavement or compassionate leave for losses involving other family members, friends or colleagues,” said Vanessa.
The subject of bereavement leave following the death of a pet was in the headlines earlier this year in the case of a woman who claimed she was dismissed after calling in sick when her family dog died.
Vanessa added: “We know that emotional connections with pets can be very strong and following the loss of a pet, there is a grieving period, however, ultimately it is at the employer’s discretion as to whether they permit time off in these circumstances.”
Ultimately Vanessa was keen to stress how workplaces should take, as far as possible, a compassionate and flexible approach to bereavement.
“Bereavement in the workplace can be difficult to manage, and we recognise how this can be difficult from an employer’s perspective as they face the absence of a staff member for sometimes an uncertain period,” she said.
“Handling each case sensitively, opening up dialogue with the employee to find out how they are coping, considering culture and religion as well as offering internal back-to-work support is all a proofing mechanism for employers.”