Review your bereavement policy now

Jan Gooding: Review your bereavement policy now

Bereavement leave and pay is a topic that has been neglected in employment policies for too long. Employers can and should do better.

A few weeks ago, a good friend lost her father suddenly in a tragic car accident. The dislocating loss and grief of the sudden death of a member of your family, soon followed by all the decisions and bureaucracy that surround the event, must be overwhelming.

On the whole, death is not a subject we are terribly good at in our culture. But I am surprised to find that how we handle bereavement is a little corner of employment policy that has been neglected for too long.

No right to paid bereavement leave

Anyone classed as an employee has the right to time off work if a dependant dies, but they can’t expect to be financially supported during that period. The definition of a dependant is described as: husband, wife, civil partner or partner, child, parent, a person who lives in their household (not tenants, lodgers or employees) or a person who relies on them, such as an elderly neighbour.

Although there is no legal right for time off related to the death of a dependant to be paid, and some progressive employers do offer 10 days’ paid leave, the vast majority does the minimum.

The only exception, known as “Jack’s Law”, in memory of Jack Herd, whose mother Lucy campaigned tirelessly for 10 years on the issue, is the instance of parents when a child dies.

The Parental Bereavement Leave Regulations now give a statutory right to a minimum of two weeks’ leave for all employed parents if they lose a child under the age of 18 or suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy, irrespective of how long they have worked for their employer. This is the most generous offer on parental bereavement pay and leave in the world and came into effect in April 2020.

Vague laws

The law does not say how much time can be taken off if a dependant who is not someone’s child dies. It simply says the amount should be “reasonable”, which is both vague and relies on manager discretion.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service recommends between two to five days, but a recent report by charity Marie Curie suggests 10 days is more appropriate. This time off is for dealing with immediate issues and emergencies that arise, including arranging or attending a funeral.

It has not been designed to address the common symptoms of bereavement that can include depression, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal and fatigue over a much longer period of time.

Given that on average there are 600,000 deaths per annum in the UK, a great number of people face this challenge each year. Any one of us could suddenly find ourselves in this position.

Big divide in experiences

Speaking to a volunteer from Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, I have discovered that there is quite a big gap between blue- and white-collar workers in terms of the generosity with which people are treated when bereaved.

In professional spaces like marketing and the media, it will very much depend on the manager and typically whether the individual is liked and a high performer.

Research shows that blue-collar workers, who typically work in non-office settings, tend to get two days off work without pay. After that, they are expected to go back, regardless of their mental health and the possible impact on the safety of themselves and their colleagues.

Relying on discretionary kindness doesn’t give managers much of a steer as to what would be a reasonable way to handle such scenarios. And a lack of consistency is likely to lead to some people being looked after better than others.

This is not an area of policy that anyone seeks to understand when they first join a company. But in a moment of crisis, it will matter enormously. For the sake of managers and employees, it is a good idea for every company to be much more specific in its guidance.

A survey in March 2022 by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed that while most employers offer paid bereavement leave ranging from three to five days, just 12% offer 10 days.

Marie Curie’s study found that “presenteeism” (being at work but unable to function effectively) costs the UK economy an estimated £16bn a year. What’s more, an inability to function puts the employee and others at risk.

It also found that 56% of employees would consider leaving their employer if treated badly following a bereavement. This is estimated to be at a cost of between £20,000 and £40,000 to the employer.

The figures indicate that it would cost less to implement paid bereavement leave than to deal with the associated issues with grief including accidents, illness, misconduct and lower productivity.

Ripe for review

This is an area ripe for review. A campaign has already started to persuade policymakers to make 10 days’ paid bereavement leave a statutory right. It aims to move 1m British employees on to voluntarily enhanced paid bereavement leave by the end of this year. It’s a brilliant ambition that I am keen to support by sharing it with you all here.

Employers don’t need to wait for the law to change. I would encourage everyone to enhance what they offer to 10 days’ full pay while removing any clause that makes it available on a case-by-case basis or subject to manager approval. It should simply apply consistently to dependents as classified under insurance claims, namely spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings and children.

Any one of us could be unlucky enough to find they need the benefit of this, so it’s worth setting your policy at the right level now. I was impressed to find that Becky Willan, CEO of Given, has already changed her company’s policy from five to 10 days in keeping with its B Corp status.

My friend was fortunate that her employer, Ipsos, has agreed she could have the time off work she has asked for. Nothing would have been further from her mind than the company’s bereavement policy before tragedy struck. It’s the sort of thing we simply trust that a company has in place and that it will be fair.

Now we all have a benchmark to aim for by making 10 days’ paid bereavement leave, as recommended in the Marie Curie report, universal.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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