An Employer's guide to compassionate leave

Maryam Abu HusseinMaryam Abu Hussein
Last updated on:
November 16, 2022
Published on:
November 4, 2022

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The circumstances that prompt an employee to take time off work differ greatly, and they don't always call for the same type of leave to be taken. For example, employees facing times of difficulty that prevent them from working do not necessarily have to take time out of their annual leave entitlement in order to cope with the situation. There are different types of leave available to employees in the UK. This article provides a brief overview of compassionate leave. 

What is Compassionate Leave?

Compassionate leave is a period of time off work that may be granted to employees in several different circumstances. It is usually granted following the death of a close relation or loved one and is intended to allow the employee to grieve and to plan and attend a funeral. 

Compassionate leave is very flexible and is not necessarily granted only upon the death of an employee's relative or friend. It can be granted any time the employee is experiencing significant hardship. For example, employees may be granted time off after a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness or following the death of a pet. Compassionate leave can also be applied to any emergency involving the employee's family or friends. Organisations are increasingly offering their employees compassionate leave, including following the termination of a pregnancy. 

Do Employers Have to Grant Compassionate and Bereavement Leave?

While there is no specific legislation compelling employers to agree to grant employees compassionate leave in the UK, there are some instances in which employees will have a statutory right to leave. These include the death of a child (including a stillbirth provided that it occurs after 24 weeks of pregnancy). This is known as parental bereavement leave. Legislation dictates that parents in this situation be granted two weeks' leave. Eligible employees are also entitled to parental bereavement pay. 

Employees are also legally entitled to time off work to attend the funeral of a dependant or to help a dependant in certain emergencies (e.g. where an employee's child or partner is ill and requires care). A dependant can include a child, spouse, civil partner, parent or anyone else who relies on the employee for care, such as an elderly neighbour. This is known as time off for dependants. 

While there is some overlap between compassionate and bereavement leave, they cannot always be used interchangeably. Compassionate leave is more flexible in that it can allow employees time off to cope with the deaths of those who are close to them but who are not legally dependants. It is entirely at the employer's discretion whether an employee is granted paid or unpaid compassionate leave. Compassionate leave is different to sick leave and annual leave and does not run out or accrue in the same way.

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Who is Entitled to Compassionate Leave?

Employers may have different policies concerning how and whether to offer employees compassionate leave. However, most organisations have stand-alone compassionate leave policies (or provisions in employment contracts) that detail the employer's approach to compassionate leave and the situation in which it can be taken. 

Whether you qualify for compassionate leave depends on your employer's policy, and often is at their discretion. Some employers only allow permanent employees compassionate leave, while others extend the policy to also cover casual workers. 

Details of your employer's compassionate leave policy should appear in your staff handbook or in your employment contract. Your employer may also choose to circulate a stand-alone compassionate leave policy. 

Employers can explicitly set out the exact situations in which they are willing to grant employees compassionate or bereavement leave in order to clearly set expectations. 

How Long Is Compassionate Leave?

Most compassionate leave policies will set out a rough guideline of situations for which compassionate leave is merited, how much time off an employee on compassionate leave will get and whether the employee will receive compassionate leave pay (and if so, how much).

Understandably, employees may need more time off than their employer's compassionate leave entitlement policy allows for. In such cases, whether to grant any requests for further compassionate leave is at the employer's discretion. 

The length of the compassionate leave period will often rest with the employer and is usually determined by the specific circumstances at hand. Employers are likely to offer more time off following the death of an employee's immediate family member. 

How to Request Compassionate Leave

If employers refuse to grant you compassionate leave, you can agree to other arrangements - for example, you can agree to take unpaid leave or to use up paid annual leave

The exact procedure to be followed to request compassionate leave may differ according to the employer's policies, but employees will usually be expected to request time off from their line manager or from the HR department, and to inform their employer of any absence or intended absence as soon as possible. 

Even where employers do not have a formal compassionate leave policy in place, they may agree to grant paid compassionate leave on a case-by-case basis. 

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