It's the sort of absence you hope never to take - compassionate leave. But such is the nature of life, and death, you'll more than likely need some time off for a bereavement or serous illness within your family or friends :(

But what counts as compassionate leave, it's not just death.

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, but we can also include serious illness, or other traumatic event like being the victim of a crime.

Compassionate leave may need to be taken at short notice, without your employer having time to prepare for the loss in staffing, and maybe without a set end point for their return to work.

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, it's just one of those things. The most important part is that as an employer (and being human)  you show compassion, give someone the time off they need, allow them the space to aborb, reflect, recover. We are talking about a very small percentage of staff absence. This is not the time to bring out the paperwork and contractual terms.

What are company policies on compassionate leave?

Not all companies 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 employer to decide what's reasonable and what isn't - which can be a difficult decision to make, especially when emotions are running high.

How to deal with compassionate leave

If you'e an employer reading this then we'd urge you to be lenient, be a supportive employer, show compassion, try and empathise with the employee, put yourself in their shoes. You want to give them enough time to deal with and recover from the situation. Forcing someone back to work when they are down in the dumps isn't going to help anyone.

If you are an employee then try to be up front and honest with your employer, explain the situation, the impact on you, how you are feeling, say how much time you think you need.

Compassionate leave allowance?

In our experience companies don't usually have a set amount of compassionate leave days per employee. The unique circumstances of each absence and their irregular frequency don't lend themselves to tightly structured and consistently applied policies.

That said, it's about tone and intention. If your compassionate leave policy is generous, has flexability and discretion, and focuses on showing employees support during hard times, then yeah, you're on the right track. If all you want to do is fix a given number of days per employee per year then no, please, that's not compassion.

On the low end of the scale, I've heard of companies not allowing any form of  compassionate leave, they just expect you to take paid time off - which is bad form, 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. And if I was treated without compassion during such a traumatic time, I'd most likely 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's a few additional circumstances that might prove a challenge, a bit more thought will be required:

  • What happens when someone is taking an unusually long time off work after a bereavement?
  • If a bereavement causes mental health/ longer term issues which causes them to miss work, when does compassionate leave end and sickness start?
  • 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, it's worth being 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 they'll help prepare you well.

In summary

Conmpanies need to accept and be prepared for the eventuality of compassionate leave. Sooner or later someone is going to need it. So think about it, consider it, plan for it, get some agreement about how to handle it, maybe draft a policy if you think it needs one.

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