It’s important to be sensitive when you’re discussing compassionate leave. Losing a loved one is one of the most challenging things that your employees may face in their lives, so it’s critical that it is handled sensitively, whilst also balancing the needs of the business. But what is the entitlement for compassionate leave in the UK, and how is it best to handle conversations around compassionate leave with employees?

In this article, we’ll explore the different types of compassionate leave as well as discussing whether there is a statutory entitlement to compassionate leave and whether requests for this type of leave can be refused by an employer.

What Is Compassionate Leave?

Contrary to popular belief, compassionate leave is not just related to death. It’s a type of absence from work that may be given when an employee is going through a difficult time in their life. Whilst this is usually in response to a death within the close family, it can also include the serious illness of an immediate family member, a childcare emergency or being the victim of crime.

Generally, compassionate leave is taken at short notice as the situation is not something that can be prepared for. This means that businesses may not have time to arrange cover. However, compassionate leave is a way of demonstrating compassion to your employees, giving them the time to reflect and recover when they need it the most, without worrying about work.

If you need advice on compassionate leave, our expert team is here to help. Contact us today for advice on HR and employment law 

Compassionate Leave Vs Bereavement Leave

The terms compassionate leave and bereavement leave are often used interchangeably. However, they are not the same thing – each has a different meaning.

Bereavement leave is used solely when an employee is recovering from the death of a loved one, such as a dependent, family member or close friend. Parents could also take bereavement leave after a stillbirth.

Whilst compassionate leave may be taken after bereavement, it can also be used to care for a sick relative or a dependent too, or to recover from a traumatic situation such as being the victim of a crime.

As compassionate leave and bereavement leave are two separate types of absence, it is important to distinguish between the two in your company policies. After all, you never know when an employee might request time off after the death of a loved one or the sudden illness of a dependent.  

What Is Parental Bereavement Leave?

Parental Bereavement Leave was introduced in April 2020 as a legal entitlement in the UK. The reason for the introduction of this leave was to give parents the time to grieve after the death of a child or a stillbirth.

If a parent loses a child before the age of 18, or if a stillbirth occurs after reaching 24 weeks gestation, the parents are legally entitled to two weeks of bereavement leave. This leave can be used at any point within 56 weeks of the death and no notice is required to be given. The leave is able to be taken as a block of two consecutive weeks, or as two individual and separate weeks.

During Parental Bereavement Leave, parents who have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks are entitled to receive Statutory Parental Bereavement Pay (SPBP), which is paid at the rate of £151.90 per week, or 90% of average earnings if this is lower.

Compassionate leave entitlement

Compassionate Leave Entitlement

There is no legal entitlement to compassionate or bereavement leave in the UK, under it falls into the category of Parental Bereavement Leave. However, most employers choose to offer a period of compassionate leave to employees, especially those with long service. This is a way of demonstrating to your employees that you care about their wellbeing and could help to improve employee motivation and attitude to work in the long term.

It’s also important to note that the law entitles employees to a reasonable time off work on an unpaid basis to deal with an emergency involving a dependent. This could involve a dependent that is ill, injured or giving birth, or to deal with unexpected childcare or care issues involving dependents.

If your company cannot provide paid compassionate leave to employees, it’s important to consider what other arrangements could be put in place should the need arise for an employee to take time off. This could include unpaid leave or the ability to use annual leave at short notice.

How Long Should Employees Offer For Compassionate Leave?

As compassionate leave is not a legal entitlement in the UK, employers can choose how much (if any) compassionate leave to offer to their employees. The average length of time offered in the UK is five working days of compassionate leave. However, it is up to the individual company to decide how much compassionate leave to offer.

If resources allow for it, many businesses choose to offer a longer period of paid compassionate leave if it is required. For example, Facebook gives its employees up to 20 days of paid leave for the loss of an immediate family member, and 10 days of paid leave for an extended family member. This is an addition of up to six weeks of leave to care for a sick relative and three days of leave for ‘family sick time’, enabling employees to care for dependents with short term illness.

You’ll need to think about how many days you are able to offer to an employee as compassionate leave. This is likely to depend on your company structure and your resources.

If you are unable to offer an extended period of paid leave, you could offer unpaid leave on compassionate grounds. If your employee requires more time off, you could then allow them to use annual leave or parental leave if applicable.

Is Compassionate Leave Paid?

As we’ve discussed previously, compassionate leave does not legally have to be offered by companies. For this reason, any compassionate leave that is offered does not need to be paid. However, over 95% of employers do offer paid compassionate leave to their employees as a way of demonstrating that they care for their staff.

This means that companies can decide how much, if any, compassionate leave pay they offer to their employees. This can range from full pay to unpaid compassionate leave. The rate of pay that an employer offers for compassionate leave may depend on the circumstances of the requested leave and the period of leave requested.

The exception to this is Parental Bereavement Leave. When this type of leave is requested, the employee is entitled to up to two weeks of leave, paid at the statutory rate of £151.90 per week. Of course, the employer may choose to pay the employee at their full salaried rate if desired.

Compassionate Leave Policy

The majority of businesses explain their compassionate leave policy in the contract of employment or employee handbook. Having a clear policy will help to ensure that the business follows a fair and consistent process when considering requests for compassionate leave.

In your compassionate leave policy, you’ll need to detail how much compassionate leave employees are entitled to and whether it will be paid or unpaid. You’ll also need to detail any qualifying criteria that employees are required to meet to be eligible for compassionate leave, such as length of service. In this policy, you should set out the process for requesting compassionate leave, and the circumstances in which it is able to be requested.

By having a clear policy, employees will know what to expect when they face a challenging situation that requires time off work. It will also lay the groundwork for fair and consistent treatment of employees, helping to avoid disputes later down the line.

What Is Considered Immediate Family For Compassionate Leave?

Some employers state that compassionate leave is available when the situation relates to an immediate family member. This could be related to both death and serious illness. But what is classed as an immediate family member, and where does the line to extended family lie?

Immediate family is usually defined as a parent, sibling, spouse or child. However, some organisations will also include grandparents, grandchildren, aunts and uncles under immediate family. Anything outside of these relations would be categorised as extended family.

If you decide to limit compassionate leave to only immediate family, it’s recommended that you define what is meant by immediate family in your compassionate leave policy. This will ensure that everyone is clear when it comes to the situations in which compassionate leave is being offered.

Can an employer refuse compassionate leave

Can An Employer Refuse Compassionate Leave?

Compassionate leave is not a legal entitlement in the UK. This means that employers are not required to grant compassionate leave when requested. However, if you have a company policy that states that employees are entitled to compassionate leave in certain circumstances, you may be required to honour this depending on the wording of the contract.

If the contract sets out that compassionate leave is a discretionary right, the employer is able to refuse the request. However, if the right is contractual, the company cannot refuse the request, providing it complies with the conditions set out in the policy. If you refuse compassionate leave that an employee is contractually entitled to, you could face a dispute in relation to breach of contract, despite compassionate leave not being a legal entitlement.

It’s important to note that dependent leave is a statutory entitlement, as is Parental Bereavement Leave. So, if an employee requests time off to deal with an unexpected emergency involving a dependent, or as a result of the death of a child, the business is legally obliged to permit the request.

If you are unable to offer paid compassionate leave to your employees, you could instead offer unpaid leave, the opportunity to use annual leave or allow your employee to make up the time at a later date.   

Related Questions

Who Qualifies For Compassionate Leave?

In the UK, there is no legal entitlement to compassionate leave for employees. This means that it is up to individual employers to make the decision on whether they want to offer compassionate leave and if so, who they decide to offer it to. Whilst some employers may decide to offer compassionate leave to all employees, others may choose to limit it to employees who have completed a certain length of service. On the other hand, some employers may decide not to offer paid compassionate leave at all.

Are Employees Entitled To A Day Off For A Funeral?

After the death of a friend or family member, employees may request time off work to attend a funeral. Whilst there is no statutory right that permits employees time off to attend a funeral, many employers will allow this through compassionate leave.

It’s important to note that section 57A of the Employment Rights Act 1996 entitles employees to reasonable time off to take the necessary action as a result of the death of a dependent. This includes making funeral arrangements and potentially attending the dependent’s funeral. So, if the death is an employee’s spouse, child or parent, they are entitled to time off work – although this is not legally required to be paid.

In Summary

Whilst compassionate leave is not a statutory entitlement in the UK, many employers choose to offer this type of leave to employees who are going through a challenging time. This could be as a result of a death or serious illness in the family, or another unforeseen trauma such as being the victim of a crime.

Compassionate leave enables the employee to take the time to recover emotionally from the situation they’re facing, as well as giving them the time to make practical arrangements for a funeral or care of a loved one if required.

Most employees set out their policy on compassionate leave within the contract of employment or the employee handbook. Having a clear policy will help to prevent disputes later down the line, as well as ensuring that a fair and consistent approach is followed.

If you need advice on compassionate leave, our expert team is here to help. Contact us today for advice on HR and employment law 

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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