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Compassionate leave

Some people welcome the routine of work after a bereavement, but others may need more time off to grieve. If you need to take time off when someone dies, this page explains your rights as an employee and how to arrange time off school for children.

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Compassionate leave is paid or unpaid time off in particularly difficult circumstances, such as when you’ve been bereaved. Most companies have a policy for compassionate leave, so it’s a good idea to check your employment contract or staff handbook. This will tell you whether there is a set amount of time granted, and whether any time off will be paid or unpaid.

There’s no legal obligation for your employer to grant you compassionate leave unless your employment contract says so. However, it’s rare for employers to refuse compassionate leave, so talk to them as soon as you can. The amount of time that you’re given is up to your employer. This could be as little as a few days or several months (long term compassionate leave).

Time off in an emergency

While there is no law about compassionate leave in the UK, there is some relevant legislation under the Employment Rights Act 1996   which applies to England, Wales and Scotland.

In Northern Ireland, legislation is covered under The Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996  . This allows for taking time off work in emergencies (such as a funeral) that involve dependants, provided you tell your employer as soon as possible.

Dependants are defined as your husband, wife or civil partner, children, parents or someone living with you who isn't your tenant, lodger, boarder or employee. In some cases it can also mean someone who relies on you for care, such as an older neighbour. The amount of time you can take by law is only defined as ‘a reasonable amount’. In some cases this is only a couple of days – and your employer doesn’t have to pay you for the time off unless they want to.

If the person who died is not your dependant, your employer may still grant you compassionate leave, although this is up to them. They may make a decision after checking which other employees were given time off in similar circumstances. This is so they can be consistent and to make sure no one feels unfairly treated.

If you’re refused leave or unfairly treated

If you’ve made a reasonable request it’s unlikely that you’ll be refused leave but if this happens, you may be able to use your holiday allocation. If you’re struggling to cope, speak with your GP who may also give you a note saying whether or not you’re fit to work (called a fit note, previously a sick note). Please check your contract or staff handbook to see whether your leave will be paid.

If you’re granted compassionate leave but miss out on a promotion, training or other benefits as a result, speak to your local Citizens Advice Bureau about your rights.

Long term compassionate leave

Your employer might agree to let you have several months off. In most cases this will be unpaid. If you’re on long term compassionate leave and don’t feel able to go back to work yet, make an appointment with your GP. They may give you a doctor’s note saying you’re not yet fit to work because of the bereavement, which may help you make a case for longer leave with your employer. If you need bereavement support to help you cope with your grief, we have a list of useful organisations that can help.

If new caring responsibilities emerge, for example, the bereavement has given you care of children or an older parent, you can talk to your employer about flexible working options. Provided you’ve worked for your employer for at least 26 continuous weeks, and haven't already made a request in the past 12 months, you have a legal right to make a flexible working request, although your employer doesn’t have to agree to it.

Above all, always try to communicate regularly with your employer and let them know how you’re feeling. Many employers in the UK are very supportive and will do what they can to help.

Some larger employers also have employee assistance programmes. Check with your employer to see if the programmes can offer you any support. This is usually a confidential service that means that your employers won’t get any confidential information about your discussions.

Time off school for children and teens

There are no policies or laws that say how much time off bereaved children and teenagers can take. Compassionate leave for children and teenagers is usually the headteacher’s decision. Contact the school as soon as you can. Most schools have support systems in place so talk to them about how they can help you.

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