ACAS publishes Guidance on Bereavement in the Workplace

Posted by Rebecca Ireland on
Many organisations have in place a Special Leave policy, or perhaps a Compassionate Leave policy, dealing with bereavement. These may be quite comprehensive or simply specify the amount of time off that is permitted following a bereavement, which varies depending on the relationship with the deceased.

There is no statutory right to bereavement leave itself although female employees who suffer a stillbirth after 24 weeks are entitled to their full period of maternity leave. In addition, section 57 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives employees the right to have a reasonable period of unpaid time off work to deal with a dependant, and this can cover the death of a dependant. See our article Importance of remaining in touch with employer posted on 14 October for more details of the section 57 right.

ACAS has recently published a Good Practice Guide Managing Bereavement in the Workplace. This recommends that employers adopt a compassionate and flexible approach to try and ensure that the impact on the individual and organisation is minimised, while at the same time supporting the employee during a difficult period.

The Guidance recommends putting in place a Bereavement policy (and an example is included), as well as training managers and HR teams to have compassionate and effective conversations with bereaved employees. The Guidance covers two specific stages of bereavement: the immediate aftermath of the death and then the return to work.

In the immediate aftermath of the death, managers should:

  • Pass on their condolences to the bereaved employee;
  • Make sure that the employee knows that they are not expected to work on the day the death has taken place;
  • Ask how the employee would like to stay in contact (phone or e mail) or if there are particular times to avoid. However, avoid putting pressure on the employee to make decisions at this time;
  • Establish how much information the employee wishes their colleagues to have about the death and if the employee wants to be contacted by their colleagues;
  • Be sensitive to religious practices or cultural customs where there may be specific mourning rituals. Religion or belief is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and employers should try and accommodate religious beliefs and customs where it is reasonable and practicable.

In relation to the employee’s return to work, some employees may prefer to return to work quickly to have some normality and routine in place, others may need more time off. The relationship with the deceased and the circumstances of the death are relevant considerations. On the return to work, managers should:

  • Arrange regular reviews with the employee to discuss any strategies or adjustments which can support the employee on their return to work; 
  • Consider a phased return to work or reduced hours on a short-term or long-term basis;
  • If relevant, remind the employee of any support that is available such as counselling that is provided through private healthcare schemes; 
  • Be sensitive to significant dates such as the date of an inquest; 
  • Be aware that the family unit may have changed. The employee may now be a single parent, or has taken on more responsibility for a surviving parent, and would like to request flexible working;
  • Be mindful of any increased sickness absence of the employee or dip in performance and consider how these should be managed. For example, a long-term absence because of depression could constitute a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010 and the organisation will be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments.

As for a Bereavement policy, it is good practice to offer some paid bereavement leave. This often ranges from two to five days, depending on the nature of the relationship with the deceased. The policy should specify what is meant by an “immediate relative” so that is clear that the employee understands what their entitlement is. The policy should also specify what happens when the employee still feels unable to return to work after bereavement leave and sick leave is inappropriate. In those circumstances, a period of special/compassionate leave whether paid or unpaid could be included along with the option of taking annual leave. The policy should also set out the arrangements on the return to work, for example, the possibility of working part-time and, finally, make it clear what employee support is available.

People react to a bereavement in different ways and the impact of grief can be overwhelming for many people. It can result in anxiety and stress, disrupted sleep and absence from work all of which are likely to impact on performance. The ACAS Guidance clearly sets out the steps employers should take at this difficult time and the need to have compassionate and sensitive discussions with the bereaved employee.

About the Author

Rebecca is a highly experienced employment lawyer, having specialised in the area over 21 years ago, and is also a qualified mediator.

Rebecca Ireland
Email Rebecca
0118 955 3012

View Profile