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13 May 2013

Bereavement leave – how long and at what cost?

When you lose a loved one, the grief can be overwhelming. Practicalities aside, there is no magic formula for the time it takes until you begin to pick up the pieces of “normal” life again. Given that maternity and paternity leave is enshrined in law for welcoming a new life, should employees be entitled to paid bereavement leave when saying farewell to their nearest and dearest?

Jo Davis (JD), partner and employment practice group leader, argues against formalising current arrangements, while Sara Rendell (SR), senior associate in the private client team says employers should show compassion.

Q1 Do you think employees should be officially entitled to bereavement leave or compassionate leave?

JD: No, I believe employers generally exercise good judgment in this area, allowing such leave as is appropriate and manageable to balance the competing interests of the individual and the business.   The law already provides that an employee can take a reasonable amount of time off during working hours in certain circumstances, including any necessary action as a consequence of death of a dependant. 

SR: I also say no, different people need different periods of time to grieve and how do you decide which family members would be included?  No matter how many people you define there will always be some employees who would miss out. I don't think we should have legislation to cover the few bad employers, when the majority are more understanding.

Q2 Is it fair to ask employers to shoulder the burden of staff on bereavement leave?

JD: This is part and parcel of employing staff – they will get sick from time to time, they may well have children and they will need holidays. Bereavement is something else that happens which employers must accommodate. 

SR: Forcing someone to come to work when they are in no fit state would result in reduced productivity, whereas allowing someone a few days if they need it, means the employer should end up with someone who does a better job. As it is unlikely to occur regularly, I think the employer should bear the burden.

Q3 Could you put a time limit on bereavement leave, given that different people will grieve in different ways/timescales?

JD: I think employers are well advised to have a time limit, which may differ depending on the relationship of the deceased to the employee.  In that way, you treat everyone the same and everyone knows the expectations of them. If an employee needs extra time because the death has knocked them for six, most doctors would sign them off anyway.

SR: I do not think you can put a time limit on bereavement leave. Different people need different time to grieve and it also depends on the relationship.

Q4 Is it practical to suggest bereavement leave for ‘close family’ given this means different things to different individuals?

JD: Close family should be defined.  While it may not cover everyone an employee cares deeply about, it sets parameters and prevents abuse.

SR: ‘Close family’ is too vague. Does it include an unmarried partner? Some people are very close to their cousins, or you could be brought up by a non-family member and have no contact with your blood relations. How can you legislate for emotions?

Q5 Given the amount of time it takes to deal with the practicalities would you recommend paid bereavement leave?

JD: It is good industrial relations to allow some paid time off to deal with arranging the funeral etc, but I would recommend that this is limited to a few days at most.  

SR: I don’t think bereavement leave is necessary for dealing with probate formalities. Current legislation allows you to take reasonable time off, if an employer does not allow paid time off work.

Q6 What would be your ideal solution?

JD: Employers should implement a policy to ensure that everyone knows what to expect. It also sets the expectation for return on those who might want to abuse the right and, if it is correctly drafted, retains a healthy dose of discretion, allowing the employer to be flexible according to the particular circumstances. 

SR: In an ideal world an employer needs to show compassion, but each situation is different. I don't think you can legislate for how long someone can have off when people react differently.

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