Most of us prefer to avoid the subject of death but it helps if bereaved employees receive sensitive nurturing when they return to work.

You’ll probably know the old saying that there are two things you can be sure of in a lifetime: death and taxes. Taxes can be avoided but death, sadly, is inevitable. So it’s sensible to have written policies in place, setting out how staff will be supported in the event of being bereaved, and procedures to minimise disruption if they request, or you offer, compassionate leave.

Employers need to be aware there are several legal precedents relating to compassionate leave.
An amendment in 1999 to the Employment Rights Act 1996 entitled employees to a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off work to make necessary arrangements following the death of a dependant, or anyone living in the same household, apart from tenants and lodgers.

Time off is unpaid and there is no legal precedent as to how much time is reasonable. The legislation does not include any right to time off to grieve.

Alison Loveday, head of employment at commercial law firm Berg Legal, says staff will be entitled to time off to deal with grief only if it is provided for in their contract of employment. Likewise, there is no statutory right to leave following the death of a close relative or friend. However, Loveday says: “Employers are entitled to, but are strongly advised not to, refuse an employee time off for this reason.”

Steve Willey, personnel director at health and safety consultancy First Business Support, says an employer may refuse a request for leave if it’s unreasonable - for example, if it would mean closing the business completely or result in exceptional financial loss. Employees are within their rights to make a claim to an employment tribunal if leave is unreasonably refused.

According to Willey, there’s no length of service requirement, so an employee would be entitled to make such a request from their first day of employment. Even so, employees do not have the right to be paid for their leave unless their contract of employment provides for this.

The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations, which came into force in December 2003, prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. This means it could be ruled discriminatory for an employer to refuse to allow employees a reasonable amount of time off work to comply with set mourning periods prescribed by their faith.

Psychotherapist Asaf Rolef Ben-Shahar stresses the importance of having a meeting with the bereaved person to clarify expectations. What would they like? What kind of support would be helpful?

He says: “We’re all human and we make mistakes and offend people at times. Allow your humanity rather than your list of procedures to guide your response to bereaved people.”

C-store operators are, on the whole, quite sensitive when dealing with bereaved staff. Musgrave Budgens-Londis (MBL) allows up to five days official paid leave if an immediate family member has died. The provision is set out in its staff handbook but Simon Wells, senior human resources manager, says: “We have to take our corporate hat off and consider the specific case in hand. Individuals are all different and react to crises in different ways.”

Wells says the formal policies are there to provide guidance and structure for line managers to work with and for employees to understand their basic entitlement. “However, there has to be an element of discretion and additional support where appropriate,” he adds.

MBL also offers ancillary services, including organising counselling. Wells explains: “We have to have a high level of empathy and compassion and we do our best to rehabilitate staff back into the company and into their role.”

When someone is off work unexpectedly due to bereavement, it can create huge pressures on the business and the individual’s colleagues. Wells says that, as a business with strong family values, MBL staff are generally supportive of each other and will always pitch in when needed.

West Midlands Nisa retailer Atul Amin says 70% of bereaved staff need counselling, and he strives to make such staff feel they belong and not isolate them. He says: “When staff are suffering from bereavement, you are not going to get 100% from them. We will sit down and talk. Sometimes they have to get it off their chest. We will spend a lot of time counselling. If you make staff feel they are one of yours, it helps them come out of it quicker.”

Co-operative Group managers can authorise up to five days’ paid leave for an employee on the death of a close family member, subject to the particular circumstances of each case, and the group makes provision to ensure employees don’t lose out financially if they need to take unpaid leave.

Michelle Vernon, Co-operative Group public relations manager, says: “If granted unpaid compassionate leave, managers will try to limit any effect on an employee’s pay wherever possible. They may include making arrangements for an employee to work back part or all of the time they’re away, by arrangement and agreement with their manager.”

The Social-Readjustment Rating Scale, which was developed by scientists Holmes and Rahe, suggests a way of measuring stress levels in a person’s life.

It considers the death of a spouse the most traumatic event with a score of 100, while death of a close family member scores 63 and a close friend 37.

Even so, some people could be just as devastated over the loss of a much-loved pet as a parent, says Dr Jenny Lanyon, head of operations at health and well-being consultancy PPC Worldwide.

“An older person who lives alone, and who may already have suffered multiple bereavements, may be very distressed at the loss of a pet,” she says.

PPC published a report in March called Milestone or Millstone? which found that miscarriage was the hardest thing people had to cope with in life, followed by the death of someone close.


Before your employee returns to work, check what they want colleagues to know.

Ensure everyone is appropriately briefed.

Consider a phased return with reduced hours or days for the first few weeks.

Keep talking to the employee. Don’t walk on eggshells.

Don’t put pressure on staff to talk. Be prepared to listen.

Monitor how the employee is getting on.

Short daily chats are often more supportive than an occasional long, intense conversation.

Remind employees from time to time of any support that is available but don’t be intrusive.

Be alert to signs that the employee is struggling.

Be patient - it can take a year or more to recover from a bereavement.

Don’t treat the employee with kid gloves.

Most people want to pick up the threads of their lives as soon as possible.

Source: PPC Worldwide