There aren’t many questions from managers that I really dread, but questions about compassionate leave are definitely on the list.
There’s such a lack of understanding about what it is, what it’s for and how it’s managed that it can be a minefield that’s only made more explosive by the raw emotion that’s often exposed by the sorts of circumstances that cause the questions to be asked. So in the hope of sparing some of you some frustration, I thought I’d spell out some things you may or may not have thought about before.
- There’s no legal right to compassionate leave. This is often forgotten, because it is such a routine part of UK employment, especially in white-collar industry. But compassionate leave is optional for employers.
- It doesn’t have to be paid. In fact, most employers who offer compassionate leave are pretty clear that whether or not it’s paid is discretionary on the part of the employer.
- It’s not for going to funerals. This seems to be poorly understood. A person might use compassionate leave to attend a funeral, but that’s not what it’s actually for.
Let’s start with what compassionate leave is for and why an employer should strongly consider including it in their policies if they don’t already.
When a person suffers a major, life-changing event, it can come with significant emotional trauma: usually some form of grief. Grief is a temporary mental illness. It makes concentration impossible; it saps the body and mind of energy; it creates a state of hyper-sensitivity to emotional and physical stimuli. In short, it’s not conducive to being a positive, engaged and productive employee, but it’s not exclusively associated with bereavement.
A person might need compassionate leave if they or person close to them is diagnosed with a terminal illness, suffers a life-changing injury, goes missing or is a victim of crime, just as a start. In fact, any psychic shock can induce the experience of grief and employers should be ready to consider granting compassionate leave as a response to any of them.
Bereavement, of course, is the most common, but it shouldn’t be an automatic assumption that a person who suffers bereavement will want or need compassionate leave, and you definitely shouldn’t put limits on entitlement based on proximity of relationship. How an employee will be affected by grief depends more upon the closeness of the emotional relationship than the genetic one. Families being what they are, a person could grieve more deeply for the loss of a partner’s cousin than for their own parent. Even species is no barrier to grief. The death of a pet can be a deeply traumatic experience for many pet owners.
The key point to bear in mind is that compassionate leave is a tool by which employers can provide an instant, confident response to an employee’s psychic trauma: no, you don’t have to come to work; yes, you can take some time off. ‘Take as long as you need’ are words I often hear associated with compassionate leave. But when you say them, you need to be clear that “as long as you need” is unpaid.
When, then, should unpaid compassionate leave be paid compassionate leave? Well, there aren’t any rules about that. It’s discretionary. Employers get to make that decision.
As a rule of thumb, I would say that one day’s paid compassionate leave is justified if any paid compassionate leave is ever considered.
After that, you have to make a more complex judgement call. You can extend paid compassionate leave; extend compassionate leave but make it unpaid; move the employee onto paid holiday (if any is available) or move the employee onto sickness absence (they are unable to work due to what’s basically a mental health issue, so it’s fair to categorize it as sickness).
But you don’t have to make that decision immediately. Touch base with the employee. Let them know you’re moving them onto unpaid compassionate leave for now. But keep the dialogue open. When the first impact of the grief has moved on, they’ll know better what they want and need. If what they want is to get back to work (and many do) then you can re-categorize their leave in a mutually-agreed way when they’re back. If what they want is more time off, you can then let them know their options, but without putting them under pressure to make a decision.
Making this extended compassionate leave unpaid by default means that the employee can decide how much pressure there is to get back to work, whilst knowing that there are options to re-adjust the scales if they want or need to do so.
Then, when the employee comes back, employer and employee can have a conversation about the arrangements. Extending paid compassionate leave is a popular choice amongst managers who want to be liked (and who doesn’t?) but it can be awkward if extended without fair reason. If an employee is personally responsible for arranging a funeral, is an executor of a will or is struggling personally with some other part of the bureaucracy of trauma, then you might reasonably extend paid compassionate leave for a few days. If, however, an employee is simply really, really sad then sick leave might be better. Or if they are supporting someone else who is grieving but aren’t, themselves, overly afflicted, perhaps a period of holiday would be best.
Avoid giving people extended paid compassionate leave simply because they are senior or popular, because that way lies a risk of inequitable treatment and all that this entails.
Oh, and by the way, yes, I had to take compassionate leave recently, which is why you had no blog last week. I’m OK, thanks for asking, but this week’s blog is dedicated to my dear friend, Corinne, who didn’t wear purple enough.