Bereavement leave (sometimes known as compassionate leave) is time off work to deal with the death of a close family member.

However, confusion and even disagreement is not uncommon when it comes to how much bereavement leave employees are entitled to and how to define a ‘close family member’.

How much bereavement leave are employees legally entitled to?

There is no right to paid time off for bereavement. An exception is made for parental bereavement leave, which allows two weeks’ paid leave for parents who had a child under the age of 18 who died or who have experienced a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

What you are entitled to is Time off for Dependants. This is reasonable time off if a dependant dies (or there is some other emergency). For example, a husband, wife, partner, parent or someone else living with you who relies on you. However, employers are under no obligation to provide paid bereavement leave.

The law says that the amount of leave allowed should be ‘reasonable’ and is intended to help people do things like arrange and attend the funeral. Typically, employers interpret ‘reasonable’ as three to five days.

Can employees have time off if a friend or distant relative dies?

If a friend or non-dependant family member passes away, such as a grandparent, aunt or uncle, there is no legal right to bereavement or compassionate leave and any time off is granted at the discretion of your employer.

Employers have a balance to strike between being understanding of a person’s individual situation in judging the closeness of the connection between their employee and the deceased, and ensuring employees don’t misuse compassionate leave such as expecting time off at regular intervals for ‘bereavements’ generally. This might sound harsh, but I have seen this happen!

Bereavement Leave Policy

The best way to approach bereavement leave is to have a clear policy outlining the circumstances under which leave would be granted, the amount of leave that will be allowed and whether or not this will be paid. Some employers also call this a ‘compassionate’ or ‘special’ leave policy.

What happens if there is no bereavement policy?

If an employer doesn’t have a bereavement policy, they would need to discuss each individual situation with the employee concerned and attempt to be even-handed and consistent in their approach. Time off could be treated as sick leave or even annual leave if appropriate. But it would be wise to put any decisions in writing.

How far does it go? – Can you get time off work when a pet dies?

It might sound crazy but it’s a question that frequently comes up and has even been in the news recently! A dog is after all a beloved family member whose death triggers the grieving process.

Pet bereavement leave, however, is not recognised by the vast majority of employers. If a staff member is struggling following the death of a pet, it might be appropriate for an employer to allow them to take some annual leave but they are not entitled to time off.

The problem with introducing pet bereavement leave as a policy, is defining the limitations. For example, if you allow someone three days’ leave following the death of their dog, what happens if an employee’s goldfish dies?!

To conclude, I would say that grief affects people in very different ways. Some people want to stay in the routine of work to retain a sense of normality, while others struggle to focus and need time to process their loss. Employers should be mindful of individuals’ needs and, indeed, their ability to be productive in work while dealing with a bereavement, while also being fair and ensuring business continuity.

Need advice on bereavement leave?

For expert advice on bereavement leave entitlement or any employment or HR issue, speak to our employment law team by emailing enquiry@beswicks.com or phoning our Stoke-on-Trent solicitors on 01782 205000 or our Altrincham solicitors on 0161 929 8494.