Five things small businesses need to know about compassionate leave

Nov 21, 2016 | Time Off Work

Managing the various different types of leave employees take can be difficult – business owners need to understand what their obligations are, what good practice looks like and to balance these with being consistent and fair in their approach.

With that in mind, here are five things leaders in every small organisation should understand about dealing with compassionate leave:

What do we mean by compassionate leave?

There’s no specific definition of compassionate leave, which can sometimes cause confusion. What one business describes as compassionate leave another employer might call- special leave’, or something else. Similarly, circumstances which at one organisation would entitle the employee to compassionate leave might bring no such entitlement elsewhere.

Sometimes people refer to compassionate leave when they mean emergency dependents’ leave, which is a statutory entitlement to time off to deal with an emergency relating to a child or other person reliant on the individual.

But compassionate leave is probably most commonly used as a term to describe leave given to an employee in the event of a bereavement, usually a few days to prepare for/attend a funeral or deal with the events immediately surrounding the bereavement.

There is no legal entitlement to compassionate leave for a bereavement or similar, however for obvious reasons most employers allow some time off in the event of the death of someone close to an employee, either paid or unpaid.

When to grant compassionate leave

It’s useful to have a policy on compassionate leave, to ensure consistency of approach and to avoid any stress on the bereaved employee or the manager as neither know whether time off is allowed or whether it will be paid.

It is most common to have a policy that a few days’ compassionate leave will be granted in the event of bereavement of an immediate family member, and it is useful to define exactly what is meant by that. Otherwise you risk employees asking for compassionate leave for a variety of second cousins twice-removed on a regular basis.

You may find you want to exercise a bit of discretion sometimes, if, for example, an employee was brought up by grandparents/an aunt and uncle and suffers their bereavement. They may not technically fit into your- immediate family’ definition but if the employee was especially close because of specific circumstances, you might want to relax the definition.

Whether to pay compassionate leave

Most employers try to pay at least a day or two in the event of the bereavement of an immediate family member. It might cost your business money to do so but it will earn you goodwill with employees. Most people would consider an employer not paying any compassionate leave at all to be a bit harsh, and after all this is absence which is through no fault of the employee.

What to do if the employee needs more time off

You need to strike a balance here. If the funeral is some distance away, or the employee has responsibilities in terms of organising the funeral or making other arrangements, but your policy only allows for two days off, it may simply not be realistic to expect the employee back at work that quickly. In order to ensure you are consistent with your normal policy on paid compassionate leave, you could agree to extend the time off by using unpaid leave or holiday.

When time off after a bereavement becomes sickness absence

There’s no right answer to this, but a grieving employee may simply not yet be up to coming back to work quickly after the bereavement. You can extend their absence using some unpaid leave and/or holiday, but there may come a point where this needs to become sickness absence because they are not fit for work.

If you are only able to offer unpaid leave, you may find the employee unable to accommodate this financially, and therefore goes to see their GP and gets signed off on sickness absence sooner, so that they can at least receive statutory sick pay (or whatever sick pay they are entitled to).

If they are fine taking unpaid leave but you feel you are unable to do that for too long, it’s fine to contact the employee and say you are unable to offer any further time off, and if they feel unable to come back to work just yet you suggest they visit their GP who will assess whether to sign them off or not.

This means the employee is in the sickness absence- system’, which will ensure their doctor is able to offer support, will enable the employee to probably receive at least some pay while they are off, and this also helps ensure consistency in the workplace.

If you would like some advice on your employees’ entitlements to time away from work, do get in touch.