In 2010, Jack Herd drowned in the pond in his back garden, one month shy of his second birthday. The grief and trauma that his parents went through was compounded by the fact that a week after Jack’s death, his father was expected back at work.
This inspired Jack’s mother, Lucy, to campaign for a statutory right to leave for grieving families.
Under the law, employees have the right to “reasonable” time off to deal with an emergency such as a bereavement involving a dependent.
During her campaign, Lucy Herd found that the average bereavement leave was three days and that employees would often resort to using sick leave or holiday leave for extra time off.
However, that is set to change.
“Jack’s Law” will come into effect in April this year. The law gives parents - and most other primary carers - the right to two weeks off in the event of the death of a child under 18 years or a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
In addition, for employees who have been with their employer for six months this leave is paid (although the government has set this statutory pay at less than £150 a week).
This is one of the first and the most generous examples of a law like this anywhere in the world.
However, the government advice makes it clear that this is meant to be a starting point for employers, suggesting that they could augment this mandatory leave or pay employees their full wage during their leave.
Mental Health in the Workplace
This will be a big increase for many companies: according to research by XpertHR in 2018, the average length of bereavement leave was 5 days.
Now that parents are entitled to this statutory leave, this may be extended to all bereavement leave.
That was certainly Lucy Herd’s intention: "When I started this it was about everyone's bereavement. Grief is grief."
One factor that may change things is that employers are increasingly concerned with staff well-being and mental health.
If leaders and managers have been through loss themselves, this can have a big impact on changing the company policy. The most high profile example of this is probably Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg.
After her husband’s unexpected death, Facebook changed their bereavement leave policy so that anyone who had lost an immediate family member would get 20 days paid leave. In the event of the death of an extended family member, they would get 10 days' leave. They would also be able to take six weeks' paid leave to care for a sick relative.
Why is it important for companies to have a bereavement policy in place?
It makes it easier on the employee
In the immediate aftermath of a death, as well as sadness and grief, there is often much time-consuming administration and planning to be dealt with. Employees need time off to deal with this and they will want to know how much time they are allowed. If the information is readily available to them, it saves them from having to raise this subject with a line manager and add another difficulty to what is already a hard situation.
It prevents the company from accidentally breaking any laws
It is important to be aware of laws that may apply, rather than just responding on an ad hoc basis. While most bereavement leave remains largely unregulated by law, there are certain laws that may apply, for example different religions have their own funeral rights which may require significant time off, perhaps at short notice. An employer who cannot justify their reason for turning down significant bereavement leave may find that they have committed indirect religious discrimination.
Legally, an employee has the right to keep their bereavement private and nobody should disclose their loss to their colleagues unless they have given their permission.
It affects the employee’s relationship with the company
How a manager responds to a bereavement will also affect how that employee perceives that company. Although bereavement leave is unlikely to be a factor in deciding whether to join a company, it may be a factor in choosing to leave it: more than half of employees said that they would consider leaving a job if they were not treated with compassion after a loss.
How do you decide how much bereavement leave to grant?
Don’t assume everyone has a nuclear family
It is also worth bearing in mind that doling out bereavement leave based on perceived proximity of family relationship can be unhelpful. The problem with a lot of bereavement policies is that it creates a hierarchy of the deceased: you get more time off for an immediate family member than for an extended one.
Someone may have just as close a relationship with an ‘extended’ family member as with an ‘immediate’ one and their death may affect them just as much.
Similarly, the death of a friend or a pet may affect someone greatly, yet in conventional bereavement policies there is no provision for this sort of loss.
Consider flexible working
Acas’s advice on bereavement cautions that it is important to remember that individuals are different and that some people will require more time off than others. It is impossible to anticipate every situation that may come up or how a grieving person may react. For some, work may be too much to bear; for others, the routine and familiarity of work provide an effective coping mechanism. Many people will be somewhere in the middle: they will want to continue with some aspects of their job but are unable to deal with all of them.
Companies that are already set up to allow flexible working have an advantage here: working remotely, working flexible hours or a part-time return to work can all be used to complement existing bereavement leave policies and find a solution that works for the individual.
Ask them what they need
Perhaps the best advice is to ‘treat people as grown-ups’ and remember that hardly any employees will be looking to game the system. This applies from asking how much time they need off, to considering what flexible working strategies might work for them.
By asking people what they need and empowering line managers to respond to that, companies are acting humanely - interacting as person to person, rather than company to employee.
Death and grief are something that is seldom talked about, particularly in the workplace. Jack’s Law may help to counter the stereotype of a stiff upper lip and show that sometimes more leave is required, while Sheryl Sandberg’s example may encourage people to open up about grief at work.
After all, at any one time, one in 10 employees are dealing with issues around death and bereavement. It behoves companies to take measures to address something that is universally inevitable.