Compassionate leave: definition and rules in the UK

Compassionate leave, also known as time off for dependents, is a type of leave an employee can take when someone close to them dies or has life-threatening illness or injury.

This type of leave can be used for a variety of purposes:

  • Taking care of loved ones.
  • Handling family loss.

Therefore, having a policy is critical if you want your employees to successfully get through tough times.


Compassionate leave and the law

The closest rule around compassionate leave is defined under the Employment Rights Act of 1996. This act grants employees the right to be absent from work to deal with an emergency situation.

An "emergency situation" under this law is defined as any emergencies involving the death of a dependent or when a dependent contracting life threatening illness.

How long is compassionate leave?

The law does not clearly state how much time should be granted off. The law simply states that the leave entitlements should be 'reasonable'.  

You can define your company’s compassionate leave entitlement in your employment contracts or time off policy.

Is compassionate leave paid?

The law does not grant employees any right to have a compassionate leave pay. Therefore, it could be treated as unpaid time off. Still, many employers decide to grant bereavement leave as paid leave out of respect for the employee, though they are not required by law.

If you choose to do so, we advise you to write it down in the compassionate leave policy and stay consistent to avoid unfair treatment.

Differences between compassionate leave and bereavement leave

The main difference between the two terms, although used interchangeably, is bereavement leave is specifically granted when an employee takes time off after a family member dies.

On the other hand, compassionate leave can also be used to take time off from work to care for a dependent or sick relative. 

Despite their differences, none of the types of leave are clearly defined by the law. Both leave entitlements and compensation must be defined at your discretion.

We recommend that regardless of the decisions you make, you should distinguish between these types of leave and create leave policies for each. This way, you’ll be prepared for all possible scenarios.

But there is one exception to the rule:

Parental bereavement leave

In 2020, the U.K. passed Jack's Law for working parents, the first law that grants parental bereavement leave in the world. 

This law grants two weeks statutory bereavement leave to parents who lose a dependent child under the age of 18. The two weeks can be used in a block of two weeks or broken down across the annual leave year following the child's death. This allows working parents to take time off to deal with the unbearable loss of a child when they need it the most.

The law came into effect on 6 April 2020 and it also includes miscarriages and stillbirths.

Thoughts on compassionate leave

While compassionate leave and bereavement leave are loosely defined, you need to have clear policies in place in order to implement bereavement leave in your company. Given the impact a family loss or terminal illness has on employees, businesses need to consider the effects on employees' performance, productivity and employer perception.

A supportive and empathetic workplace will only benefit you. Find out how to implement a bereavement leave policy successfully.

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