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Crisis point: Dealing with compassionate leave

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Showing compassion

No firm wants to be seen as one which does not support its staff in times of crisis. On the other hand, long-term staff absences can be crippling. If one of your team loses a loved one, how should you handle it? Matt Henkes investigates.


People under extreme stress can be highly volatile and unpredictable, and few things are more stressful than a family emergency or bereavement. That’s why it’s not only important to support your people through their trauma but also ensure they are ready to return to work before their absence has a serious long-term impact.

Legally, there is no obligation for an employee to be granted paid time off to deal with a family emergency. The only statutory right is ‘time off for dependants’, which entitles employees to unpaid absence in order to deal with the crisis. A dependant can be defined as a spouse, child or elderly relative who could be said to reasonably rely on that person for assistance.

What constitutes ‘reasonable time off’ is a trickier area and will depend on what the emergency is and how understanding you are as an employer. Most would agree that not appearing supportive at such a difficult time can irreparably damage working relationships.

Advice on compassionate leave

  • All employees are entitled to time off for dependants. This means unpaid leave of one to two days to cope with unexpected emergencies.
  • It is advisable for an employer to have a policy on this type of leave. They should also ensure that it is communicated properly and that all staff understand the policy.
  • The policy could include making it mandatory that all requests for compassionate leave are made in writing and that cases will be taken into consideration on a case-by-case basis.
  • Source: Acas

    It’s the same in the case of a family bereavement. Legally, employers only have to grant leave in order to make funeral arrangements as time off doesn’t extend to the grieving period. However, most caring employers will offer compassionate leave either on a paid or unpaid basis.

    To avoid any unnecessary painful conflicts, any such policies should be clearly explained in your firm’s contracts of employment. Employers should consider how much time they can afford to give as paid or unpaid leave and include this in the document. The vital point is, whatever the policy, it is applied consistently across the organisation.

    While it may sound callous, a clearly worded policy should specify the categories of deceased family members to whom leave will apply should they pass away. Employees may also wish to attend funerals of others who are not family. In such circumstances, a degree of discretion will be required. If the funeral is local and the employee can make up the time later, then most employers are likely to allow the time off. But in some instances, the employee may be asked to take the time as holiday.

    Care should particularly be exercised in the area of ‘discretionary leave’ to avoid any possible claims of discrimination or victimisation, advises Elspeth Watt, director at Calibre HR and Training. “The organisation’s policy should be clearly communicated so staff understand what their employer’s view is likely to be when presented with a request for compassionate leave,” she adds.

    Handle with care

    Communication with the staff member in question will require a high level of sensitivity. It is often difficult to know what to say to someone who has suffered bereavement, which is why people try to avoid getting into conversations about the situation.

    Whether they want to talk about it or not, however, your role as a caring employer is to make yourself available to listen. As a general rule, it is advisable for managers and colleagues who are not sure how to treat a grieving employee to acknowledge their loss, but treat them as normally as possible thereafter.

    Some organisations have a staff counselling service which can prove very useful following a traumatic event like the loss of a loved one. You might consider recommending the bereavement charity Cruse, for employees who remain off ill after the bereavement, or for those who are at work but may be struggling to come to terms with their loss.

    The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) suggests that even if your staff are absent from work, you still have a duty of care towards them. It is good practice to try and meet with them during this time to see if there is any help you can provide. Many employers offer a phasing back in of work hours, beginning with part-time work and gradually increasing until the employee is back to full time.

    Sharing the load

    Managing excess workload among remaining employees

  • Agree with other team members how the work might be fairly divided between them
  • Avoid the possibility of one person being unduly inundated
  • Employ a temporary worker to fill the gap
  • Utilise a work experience placement if this is appropriate
  • Source: Calibre HR and Training

    However, there are other members of staff to consider and a business still to run. All must be able to continue to work constructively within the team or work group. It’s important that if other employees are picking up the excess workload from an absent employee that the situation is explained to them.

    In many instances, staff will happily take up the overspill if a colleague has suffered some disaster. Difficulties can occur when the additional workload continues for some time, is not distributed fairly or if it becomes quickly clear that the absence is likely to stretch into the foreseeable future.

    Jacqueline McCluskey, a senior associate in the employment team at law firm Dundas & Wilson, believes this is best handled in the same way as any other absence of an employee on long-term sick leave. And while team members must be kept informed up to a point, confidentiality regarding the key issues should be considered.

    Penny Perschkey, a consultant with HR Initiatives, agrees. “It is important to note that the employee may not want the entire workforce to know their business,” she warns. “Under the Data Protection Act, employees have the right to expect confidentiality.”

    Ask if they would like colleagues to be informed of the situation and if they would like to be contacted by any of them to show their own support before making any announcements to the team.

    And be aware that some religions have specific procedures relating to the death of a family member. Hindus and Muslims, for example, require that the funeral rights be conducted as quickly as possible, meaning that there may be little advance warning of the need for them to take time off.

    Hindus also have a custom in which mourning relatives must remain at home and not leave the house. Refusal for an employer to grant time off for this could be construed as potentially discriminatory, so be careful. “A real possibility of religious discrimination claims may exist if employers do not handle this correctly,” warns McCluskey.

    While laying down a solid policy detailing how much leave someone can have if their relative dies may seem a little callous at the time, you’ll be glad you did it if ever the situation arises. It might be hard to appear sensitive and consoling when informing a distraught employee that they can only have three days off to bury their relative. If they already know, you can skip that part and get on with making them a cup of tea instead.

    3 Responses

    1. Jews
      For information, Jews are also required to conduct a funeral as quickly as possible. There then follows a 7 day period of mourning when close family members stay at home to grieve. They will need to be off work for that period and the employer may not have much notice of it.
      Linda Verby
      http://www.bennettverby.com/bvhuman.htm

    2. Muslims
      Muslim women have an obligation to an extended period of mourning which out here in the gulf equates to quite a bit of time off so again it’s one to watch for.

      Ian while I sympathise with your view (being an agnostic I don’t have much time for ritual full stop), it’s important to remember that obeying the appropriate ritual for many people may constitute the difference between someone’s salvation or damnation (think the last rites for example) and to them that is every bit if not more important than the feelings we have for the living.

      I think smart employers will have drafted some form of fall back plan for if disaster strikes (what would you do if everyone in the company went to dinner and got violent food poisoning for a week – you’d cope somehow) and multiple employees need time off.

    3. Religious Discrimination
      McCluskey says that “A real possibility of religious discrimination claims may exist if employers do not handle this correctly”.

      What is not being said is that an employer also has the right to reasonableness so some circumstances the employer does have the right to refuse any leave or excessive leave. For example other staff are already off and it would be impossible to run the machine/department etc without the member of staff. Surely supporting an employee whose child is going thorough major life threating surgery has a greater moral need that another employee taking 5 days off because religion says he should.

      Also what is not being said is that all staff have a right to be being treated fairly so if you only grant Jo Bloggs 1 days leave to attend Great Aunt Mary’s funeral why should employee X get more time off for the funeral of his Great Aunt because we are trying to be PC.

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