What counts as compassionate leave?

It's the sort of absence you hope never to take - compassionate leave. But such is the nature of life, we might all have to take it at some point in our careers.

It's not always clear what counts as compassionate leave, so here's a short guide to what managers and employees need to know.

What is compassionate leave?  

Compassionate leave is a form of absence from work that's taken when someone unexpectedly suffers something upsetting. Usually, this is the death or serious illness of a loved one or family member, or something else affecting, like being the victim of a crime or experiencing a traumatic event.

This type of leave - often known as bereavement leave, if it's due to someone's passing away - may need to be taken at short notice, without the business having time to prepare for the loss in staffing, and sometimes without a set end point for the worker's return.

Dependant on timing, colleagues may be available to cover for the absence, or it could cause major disruption. There's not really any way to plan for it, but it usually only takes up a small percentage of staff absence.

Compassionate leave doesn't cover times when the situation was known about beforehand. So this wouldn't cover pre-booked hospital appointments for children, for example.

What are company policies on compassionate leave?

Businesses don't always have a policy on compassionate leave - there's no legislation that says they have to do so. But employees in the UK do have the right to take "a reasonable amount of time" off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant (a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who depends on them for care).

It's up to the company to decide what's reasonable and what isn't - which can be a difficult decision to make, especially when emotions are running high.

Companies don't usually have a set bank of compassionate leave days per employee. They might have a nominal amount for the sake of planning (eg. 2 days per year) which in reality is flexible depending on the circumstances. Another option is providing a small amount of paid leave days per year, with any additional days being unpaid.

On the other hand, companies with less-than-supportive cultures might not allow any compassionate leave - which is poor management, even for the most ruthless corporates. Even at the risk of losing a job, if I heard any bad news about my family, I'd be out of the office in an instant. If there's absolutely no contingency plans for me being away at short notice, then any major losses incurred by my boss are his/her own fault, I reckon. And if I was treated without compassion during such a traumatic time, I'd be looking for a new job straight away.

Facebook, for all their faults, seem to have set a good example on bereavement leave. Their COO Sheryl Sandberg, who had been through a major bereavement herself, announced their policy in 2015 of 20 days paid compassionate leave if an immediate family member dies, 10 days for an extended family member, and 6 weeks to care for an ill relative.

Policies like these aren't just the right thing to do, they're also likely to increase staff loyalty and contribute to a healthy company culture.

Preparing for the eventuality of compassionate leave

There are various circumstances that might provide a challenge for any business:

  • What happens when someone is taking an unusually long time off work after a bereavement?
  • If a bereavement causes mental health issues for a worker which causes them to miss work, will this be regarded as sickness absence?
  • What happens if someone suffers a bereavement, but decides to return to work too soon, and their performance suffers as a result?

While these scenarios aren't nice to think about, they are important to be prepared for.

I'd recommend talking through plans with senior management and HR if it hasn't already been done. The need for bereavement leave can come out of nowhere, and a chaotic reaction won't help anybody. As always with HR issues, it's a great idea to consult ACAS, and their Bereavement in the Workplace guide is a good starting point. It's got some realistic case studies, which can be quite harrowing, but will prepare you well for many possibilities.

Businesses must be prepared for the eventuality of compassionate leave. It's wise to plan these into staffing forecasts, and expect that sooner or later, someone is going to need it.

It's a nuanced and complex subject, and many situations require astute judgement. Decisions on what's worthy of compassionate leave need to stay realistic, to preserve the integrity of the system and keep things fair for everyone.

In the words of ACAS:

Grief impacts on the emotional, physical, spiritual and psychological well-being of the person who is bereaved. At any time research indicates one in ten employees is likely to be affected by bereavement... a compassionate and supportive approach demonstrates that the organisation values its employees, helps build commitment, reduce sickness absence, and retain the workforce.

Photo by Francisco Gonzalez on Unsplash