How to handle bereavement leave requests

It is often difficult for employers to speak to an employee about loss or bereavement. Work is usually the last thing on the employee’s mind at such a time. So it’s essential to handle conversations about time off with sensitivity. 

Here are some things you need to consider when dealing with leave requests for bereavement reasons:

Be understanding

Remember we all grieve in different ways. Some may still be in shock. Some may handle things in a more matter-of-fact way. Others may be struggling to control their emotions. Some will be ready to come back to work immediately, whilst others may need more time.

Whatever their reaction, it is key to be understanding, sympathetic and patient. You should handle how you will keep in contact while the employee is away and how they return to work with care and sensitivity.

Do not discriminate

By law, it is not permissible to discriminate, either directly or indirectly, because of the protected characteristics’ specified in the Equality Act. These protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

Religion and belief

Many religions and faiths have different practices and customs, for example, mourning at home following a death. Employers should try and accommodate these requests where it is practical and reasonable to do so and should only refuse if there are business reasons against it.

Some employees may need to travel abroad to attend a funeral and if possible, you should accommodate this. You may ask them to take annual leave or unpaid leave to cover the whole trip.

Disability

As a result of the loss, the employee may suffer depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, which may be considered a disability under the Equality Act. To be classified as disabled, the worker needs to show they suffer from a long term (i.e. 12 months or more) physical or mental impairment which has a substantial (i.e. more than trivial or minor) impact on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

If they are disabled, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for the employee, for example allowing an employee who becomes disabled to make a phased return to work.

Sexual orientation or marital status

If you provide leave to an employee who is mourning the death of their husband, but do not allow a request for time off to grieve the loss of an employee’s civil partner, this could give way to discrimination claims.

 Do not force employees to come back to work too early

You may need the employee back at work because their absence is causing disruption to your business. However, obliging them to come back before they are ready can be counterproductive. Employees can make costly mistakes, feel under pressure and that they can’t cope. This can have a knock-on effect on their colleagues and team morale.

Be attentive once they return

You should take into consideration their bereavement and the impact it is having on the employee’s performance and attendance.

You should also think about their health and safety at work. For instance, if following the bereavement an employee is struggling to sleep, they should not be undertaking any dangerous work, such as operating heavy machinery, as it is more likely for accidents to occur which could cause harm to them and colleagues.

You should keep your eye on any behaviour or comments that may amount to bullying or harassment.

Be aware of the employee’s changing circumstances

Be mindful that the employee’s circumstances may have dramatically changed with the loss. For example, if the employee has lost their partner, they will become a single parent. They may need some temporary or permanent adjustments, such as flexible working or part time hours to look after their children.

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