Statutory bereavement leave is common across Europe and it is perhaps surprising that Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina do more for workers rights in this area than the UK.
In the UK, there is no minimum entitlement to bereavement leave. Instead, employees end up relying on their employer's discretion or taking a combination of sick leave, holiday or time off to care for dependants when dealing with a death in their family. This has its limitations – technically time off to care for dependants only provides emergency unpaid leave and is specifically to take action necessary as a consequence of the death of a dependant. The type of action contemplated by the statute is arranging the funeral or registering the death, rather than time off to cope with the emotional reaction to a death. Whilst some employees will be signed off sick with stress, this can have adverse consequences, in medicalising an emotional reaction and complicating an employee's sickness absence record.
Earlier this year, the National Council for Palliative Care issued a new programme to support businesses in dealing with employees suffering from bereavement. This was a result of research which suggested that 56% of people would leave their job if their employer did not provide proper bereavement support. Following on from this, a Private Members Bill has been introduced to specifically address bereavement leave for parents on the death of their child.
The Parental Bereavement Leave (Statutory Entitlement) Bill 2016-17A received its Second Reading debate on 28 October 2016. The bill seeks to introduce two weeks' paid leave (paid equivalent to the statutory entitlement to maternity or paternity pay) for any employee who suffers the loss of a child. The bill points out a current inconsistency in the law, in that a mother whose child is still-born is still entitled to maternity leave and the father to paternity leave, but if their child died at two, five, ten or fifteen years old, they would not have any statutory entitlement to leave and would be reliant on their employers' discretion. Whilst many employers would be sympathetic in these circumstances, there is concern that the law should be doing more to protect employees.
It is worth noting that it would also be beneficial to employers to have a structured scheme for this leave – providing certainty and enabling them to recover some of the cost of payment, in the same way as with statutory maternity pay. This would also avoid the potential for inconsistency, which as a minimum could affect staff morale and in more serious cases, lead to discrimination claims. Some larger employers, such as Asda, Heinz and Unilever already provide ten days' paid leave, with the suggestion that this is a benefit that many staff never need to use and so it is unlikely to be abused.
There is also a separate issue relating to the different religious approaches to bereavement. In Hinduism, when a death occurs, relatives are required to observe a 13-day mourning period after cremation. In Judaism, family members are required to stay at home for seven days of mourning after a death. Whilst employers could use their discretion when dealing with an employee of a certain religion to avoid discrimination, having a clear statutory framework as a starting point may help to avoid issues in this area.
The current proposal for two weeks' leave would leapfrog the UK ahead of other countries – currently Canada provides three days' paid leave, provided an employee has three months' service, Israel provides seven and Albania provides five – and there has been some concern that this is too long.
Clearly some employees will want to get back to work quickly after a bereavement, to avoid isolation at home and assist with carrying on with their lives, whilst others will not feel able to cope for some time. There is also the issue of who the leave should cover – should you just be entitled to take leave on the death of a child? Statistically, many more people of working age will lose a parent, so allowing paid time off when a parent dies is likely to have a bigger impact on businesses. This is obviously a complex and highly sensitive area and it will be difficult for the government to legislate appropriately for all individual circumstances.