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How to manage employee bereavement

By Guest Writer | 04 January 2023 | Expert Advice, Feature


How to manage employee bereavement

Tina Chander, head of employment law at Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall, shares obligations and points to consider if an employee loses a loved one.

As an employer, you may have to navigate a situation where a member of the team loses a loved one. Finding the ideal balance between safeguarding a worker’s mental health and maintaining business operations may be difficult at times like these. But what obligations under the law do employers in such circumstances have?

Bereavement law

Matters surrounding bereavement or compassionate leave are not specifically defined within UK employment law (outside of statutory parental bereavement leave). However, in order to manage emergencies involving ‘dependents’, such as a spouse, civil partner, child, parent, or anyone else who depends on their physical care, employees do have the right to take ‘a reasonable period of time’ off work, according to the Employment Rights Act 1996.

The term ‘reasonable’ is not defined by law unless it is included in a contract of employment or separate policy, however it is typically thought to be between two and five days. However, each situation should be examined individually, taking into account the nature of the employee’s relationship to the deceased, as well as the circumstances surrounding their death.

Employees wanting time off above what is agreed should request it as soon as practicable. Often, extended bereavement leave will be unpaid and permitted at the employer’s discretion. Nevertheless, employers should be mindful of their legal responsibility to protect an employee’s wellbeing under The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999. This means not pushing the return to work where mental health is a factor. However, if a prolonged absence is due to depression or anxiety resulting from the bereavement, a fit note should be provided as the employee could be entitled to sickness pay.

Employers are responsible for preventing unfair treatment of workers on bereavement leave. The bereaved must be afforded the same opportunities for advancement or training, and they cannot be let go for being physically absent. An employee may have a case for a tribunal claim if they feel they were marginalised as a result of their absence.

Religious beliefs and customs must also be accommodated when contemplating leave length. For example, under the Equality Act 2010, refusing an employee sufficient time to perform religious mourning rituals could be considered indirect discrimination.

Parental bereavement

Parents or primary caregivers who have lost a child under the age of 18 are handled differently under UK law. According to the Parental Bereavement (Leave & Pay) Act, those affected are entitled to two weeks of parental bereavement leave and/or statutory parental bereavement pay.

Employees who have worked for at least 26 weeks prior to their bereavement are eligible for statutory bereavement pay, which is equal to £156.66 a week or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lowest). Two weeks of unpaid parental bereavement leave are available to those who have not met this service requirement.

The law also safeguards the rights of employees who suffer a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy, by granting them 52 weeks of maternity leave and pay. All the employee’s standard employment rights are protected throughout this time, including their rights to pay rises and accrue annual leave.

Bereavement policies

Some businesses will have a special bereavement policy, since it can eliminate the need for wrangling during a difficult time. Such policies should make clear:

  • How the time off will be handled.
  • How much time off is reasonable to expect.
  • What will be paid to the employee during bereavement leave.
  • Procedures for reporting a bereavement.
  • The employer’s position if the deceased is not considered a ‘dependant’ under the Employment Act.
  • How the return to work will be handled.

Return to work

Be aware that a loss may result in significant changes to someone’s personal situation, such as a shift in childcare requirements or an increased financial hardship. In order to manage their new circumstances, employees might need to change their workload or duties. The ideal way to manage this is always to remain agile. This can entail recommending part-time hours, flexible or hybrid working arrangements, or a gradual return to tasks.

After returning to work, do routine one-on-one meetings to track progress. This will guarantee that any concerns are brought to light as they arise. In order to avoid unfairly affecting a person’s career history, bereavement should also be taken into account while conducting performance appraisals.

Empathy is essential for handling a worker’s mourning period. The most practical method to demonstrate your support is to treat others as you would like to be treated if the tables were turned. The creation of a secure and supportive workplace for the bereaved will assist to assure their continued involvement, loyalty and integration into the team.