How to Sensitively Handle Bereavement Leave

November 7, 2022

Grief will have a huge impact on an individual’s wellbeing. Whilst an organisation will want to ensure its business continues to run smoothly, it’s important to show compassion and flexibility if an employee experiences the death of a loved one. This may include allowing time off last minute and providing support for the individual as and when they require it.

It can be a challenging time for everyone involved, with the bereaved individual feeling the impact the most. Above all else, the business should remember that organisations that value their employees with a sensitive approach will be rewarded with a more committed workforce.

Below, we look into how you can support your employees when they experience bereavement, what employment law says about bereavement leave, and how you can balance the needs of the business with the needs of your employees.

Table of Contents

What to do when an employee experiences bereavement

It’s important to remain calm and empathetic if and when an employee notifies that there has been a death. Whilst the business will need to know certain details so you can plan for the period the individual will be away, remember that they may not be in the right place to give all the necessary information straight away.

In the first instance, you should assure the employee that they do not need to work on the day of the death. You should offer your condolences and make sure they know that they have the time to deal with whatever is needed. If possible, you may also want to discuss what the employee wants the rest of their co-workers to know. The information will be confidential, so you should never speak about it with anyone else unless the individual gives you express permission.

You may need to follow up the initial conversation with a phone call or email to discuss further details and get a sense of how long the individual will be away. Be aware that different religions and cultures will have different requirements for funerals and mourning, and some people may have to travel across the country or overseas to deal with the death. It can be helpful to keep in contact with the individual to check in with them, but you should be careful to not be overbearing or to make any suggestions about coming back to work before they are ready.

You should refer to your organisation’s bereavement leave policy and confirm any decisions over the length of time that will be taken and the pay that will be given in writing to the employee. You should be open to amending or adjusting plans to support the individual.

Providing support services

This will undoubtedly be a difficult time for your employee and you may want to remind them about any access to support services your Company offers such as employee assistance programmes, counselling services, and any sessions they may be entitled to through health cash plans or other employee benefits.

When is bereavement leave required to be given?

An employee will have the right to time off if a dependent dies. A dependent includes:

If an employee experiences the death of someone else, such as a sibling, legally it is left to the employer’s discretion whether they wish to give bereavement leave. However, businesses should be compassionate to the individual and understand that just because someone is not classified as a ‘dependent’ of the employee, their death may be no less impactful.

How much bereavement leave should be given?

Legally, there is no set number of days for bereavement leave if a dependent who is not a child under 18 dies. The law states that there should be a ‘reasonable’ time given – the most common is three to five days’ leave.

Remember that after the initial death, further days may need to be taken, including time to arrange or attend a funeral. Employees have a legal right to take time off for a funeral of a dependent. For funerals of those who are not dependents, an organisation might like to offer ‘compassionate leave’, which can be paid or unpaid. Alternatively, the individual may prefer to take the time to attend the funeral as paid holiday.

The law is different if an employee’s child under the age of 18 dies or is stillborn after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Under parental bereavement leave, sometimes known as ‘Jack’s Law’, parents are entitled to two weeks’ leave. In addition to this, the birth mother will be entitled to up to 52 weeks of maternity leave or pay, and the birth father will be entitled to two weeks of paternity leave or pay. Employers should let the employee lead on their preference for taking time off in this instance and, as always, be sensitive and compassionate to their needs.

Does bereavement leave need to be paid?

There is no legal obligation to pay employees during their bereavement leave. However, many organisations do offer pay during this time, to support their employees. Some employers will pay full wages, treating bereavement leave in the same way as annual (holiday) leave. Other employers pay a reduced rate, in line with sick pay.

Looking after employees when they return to work

Remember that everyone will handle grief differently, and it may not be a linear process. An employee may return to work and still be struggling mentally or physically. Also, some people may have different coping mechanisms for their grief – some may prefer to return to work quickly, whilst others may need some extra time to be able to focus on their work again.

As their employer, you should ensure adequate support is offered. This may be having contingencies in place if the employee is unable to cope with their workload. It may also be providing mental health resources and pointing them towards grief counselling or other resources.

Your organisation’s bereavement leave policy

You should have a bereavement policy written up and ready for reference. Your organisation’s bereavement policy should set out when an employee will be entitled to bereavement leave, how much leave will be provided, and whether the employee will be paid (and how much) during this time. Having a policy written up in advance will make it much more straightforward when a death does occur and make it easier for your employee to know what will happen.

If your company needs HR and recruitment support, Vero HR can help. We can provide you with dedicated HR services to effectively manage your workforce and assist with sensitive subjects such as bereavement leave. Contact us to find out how we can help your business.

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