Compassionate leave – what it is and how to manage it


Compassionate leave is scary to manage and address. This article aims to address some of the more sensitive areas of this particular area of HR. Whilst addressing compassionate leave in a successful way leads to a better employer-employee relationship, helps and employee feel valued and enables an employee to cope, addressing it unsuccessfully can lead to upsetting your employee, a strained employer-employee relationship and even mental health challenges.


What is compassionate leave

Compassionate leave is taken when an employee has to take time off work to deal with an extremely personal or upsetting circumstance in their private life. Amongst others, compassionate leave may be issued to an employee for:

  1. The death or extreme sickness of a close family member or friend
  2. If they’ve been the victim of criminal activity (such as a robbery, mugging or attack)
  3. If they’ve witnessed an event that has created a lasting and traumatic impact

As I have said, these are not the only reasons compassionate leave may be issued, but are amongst the most common.

Compassionate leave and bereavement leave are often used simultaneously regarding time taken off work after the death of a loved one – however bereavement leave is specific to the death of a loved one whilst compassionate leave can relate to a number of things.


Why is compassionate leave such a minefield for employees?

For a while, let’s remember that compassionate (and/or bereavement) leave is essentially something every single company should be offering regardless on impact to company efficiency, profits and convenience. Whilst some of my articles regarding subjects such as duvet days and employee benefits are recommended to create a better working environment for employees, it would be wrong, and frankly unkind, to deny employees time off for compassionate leave.

However, despite the human cost associated with bereavement leave, this is an article about HR and business – so let’s return to the cost on a company. Unfortunately, sickness, death of a loved one and crime (amongst other things) can strike at any point without warning. This means your business may have to adapt, quite literally, overnight to a changing employee situation.

Although there is never going to be a way to prepare for such absence, it is good to create a good policy to make your company and your employees more resilient to this kind of change. In doing so, you avoid your employee feeling that they are pressured to return to work before they are ready as well as stopping other employees (who may be shouldering a higher workload) feeling that you, the company owner, are inadequately prepared to deal with such emergencies.


The UK law on compassionate leave

The law in the UK states that “you’re allowed a reasonable amount of time off” to deal with emergencies and that there is no limit to the amount of time taken off or if you need to take multiple days off to take care of dependents. However, if an employer thinks that an employee is taking too much time off and it is impacting your work, they are allowed to speak to you about it. However, if you are not given time off for dependents you may be issued compassionate leave. Compassionate leave may be paid or unpaid. Do remember, compassionate leave or leave to care for dependents must be emergency leave. For example, are not able to take compassionate leave for your child’s planned hospital appointment (although you may be able to take parental leave) but if your child’s school phones saying your child has been rushed to hospital – that is different.

A note to employers – the UK government website on this kind of leave does state that you are not allowed to penalise employees for taking a reasonable amount of time off. If you dismiss an employee, you may be taken to a tribunal regarding an unfair dismissal. Remember – be kind. And, more than anything, keep talking to employees who have taken compassionate leave. By being a good employer to them, they are more likely to return to work quicker and be more productive.


An extra insight from LeaveMonitor regarding miscarriages or still-births

In UK law, a miscarriage of a child before the 24-week period does not give parents the right to take leave. However, this article about a Nottingham woman who suffered a traumatic miscarriage before the 24-week limit (who was allowed compassionate leave by her employers) may encourage your company to hold a similar policy.


Creating a compassionate leave policy

As we have already said – you need to plan ahead as far as possible for the eventuality an employee needs compassionate leave. If you do not have a policy, you are inviting trouble for yourself, your company and your employees.

It is unlikely you will find one employee in your company, even the country, who will put your work ahead of a family emergency. Rightly so, an employee will believe any severe difficulties you experience during this time are down to your lack of emergency planning. Plus, if you chastise an employee over taking this leave, or make them feel awkward for doing so, your employee turnover is going to be rather high.

For example, Facebook offer a set amount of time for employees to recover from a bereavement or a challenging event requiring compassionate leave. Forbes write a very convincing article regarding adoption of a similar policy. You can find that article here.


Creating your policy

Of course, not all companies are as rich and successful as Facebook. Maybe you simply cannot afford 20 days of paid leave for an employee after a bereavement. That is fine. During the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, companies have suffered greatly with their income – do not feel pressured to match such a company.

However, you should create a policy regarding this kind of leave. UK Government recommended site ACAS have a sample bereavement policy that you can access here – I highly recommend taking a look. Make sure your policy is up-to-date and that it works for you and your company. But, more than anything, make sure it works for individual employees. We all react different to challenging times and events. As I said earlier, it is so important to be kind. That really is the key with creating this policy. Try and make sure it is flexible to each individual who may request such leave.

In doing so, you will promote a better company ethos and attract staff – hopefully having a lower turnover. In addition to all of the above, consider creating a bespoke returning-to-work plan for each employee. Keep the lines of communication open, listen to your employee and be kind.