Online petition puts bereavement leave under the spotlight

A recent online petition has called for a change in employment law that would require organisations to provide bereavement leave following the loss of a pet. The petition was launched after an employee was dismissed for informing her employer that she would be unable to make it into work due to the death of her family dog.

Despite common misconceptions, there is no legal requirement for organisations to allow their employees extended time off work for any form of bereavement, whether it be due to a pet or family member. Employers can choose to provide bereavement leave if they wish, as part of an employee benefits package, and are free to set their own rules on the length of this leave and whether staff will continue to be paid during this time.

Organisations who choose to offer bereavement leave often see this as a way of demonstrating their commitment to employee wellbeing. After all, time away from work can help certain individuals deal with the grieving process, allowing staff sufficient opportunity to recover and help prevent the development of any long-term mental health concerns that can occur following a personal loss. Like many contractual benefits, employers can reserve the right to bereavement leave for those with a certain amount of service and specific rules on this should be outlined in a bereavement leave policy.

It is worth noting that all employees do possess the statutory right to time off for dependants (TOD), which gives them the ability to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off in emergency situations. Legislation defines a dependant as spouses, children or someone who depends upon the employee for care, however staff will usually only be granted 1-2 days’ unpaid leave in these circumstances. Employers should remember that time off for dependants is a day one right and staff must not suffer any unfavourable treatment for exercising this in the workplace.

Having said this, new laws will be introduced in April 2020 which grant certain employees the right to parental bereavement leave. Under this new law, working parents, including adoptive parents and legal guardians, who suffer the loss of a child under the age of 18 will have the right to 2 weeks’ bereavement leave.

Those with 26 weeks’ continuous service will be entitled to pay during this time, which will be set at the statutory rate. Eligible employees will have the flexibility to take this leave within 56 weeks of the child’s passing, in recognition that some individuals may favour an immediate return their working routine as a way of dealing with the grieving process.

With the above in mind, it would be wise for employers to consider their approach towards supporting staff in dealing with a bereavement, particularly given the detrimental impact that dealing with a personal loss can have on morale and productivity. A level of compassion will be essential, regardless of whether bereavement leave is available, and employers should ensure any support on offer remains flexible in order to remain suitable under a variety of circumstances.

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