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Audrey Williams: How to support bereaved employees - working beyond the law

Wednesday 24 September 2014

In our blog series on workplace bereavement, Audrey Williams, a partner in Eversheds' Human Resources Practice, discusses the law and support for bereaved employees.


Audrey Williams

Audrey is a partner in Eversheds' Human Resources Practice and is Head of the Practice's Discrimination Law team. She is a Fellow of the UK's Chartered Institute for Personnel & Development. She has particular expertise in discrimination, harassment and equal pay and is a court advocate.

Audrey Williams

Acas' new guidance "Managing Bereavement in the Workplace", launched last week, is a useful reference for what can be a difficult and sensitive issue. 

There is often concern or embarrassment from managers about doing or saying the "wrong thing": the reality is, saying nothing and avoiding a conversation can create as much upset (sometimes more). It's a like discussing an employee's disability though, if you don't talk, how can you understand what support is needed ?

As the Guidance indicates, allowing a bereaved employee to frame any discussion and indicate what contact they may want and their preferences to help manage their personal emotions and needs, is a good starting point. This enables  manager to explore and  balance individual and organisational needs.

Some are calling for legislation, to provide parents with five days bereavement leave. The Acas Guidance however goes beyond the question of the number of days off and gives practical tips about how best to deal with such situations.

It is a welcome development in an area where there is no direct legislation. What little there is, is of little assistance. For example, in legislation flexible working requests are not designed to deal with bereavement, and whilst useful to request reduced hours or working from home, provides for permanent changes to the contract.

Blunter still is the law on emergency time off for dependents. According to the case law, it does not cover a situation where the dependent dies. It deals only with unexpected disruption in caring for a dependent. The Employment Appeal Tribunal has made it clear that  this law was never intended to deal with compassionate leave, but with practical and immediate issue in the event of a death, such as attending a funeral (Forster -v- Cartwright Black Solicitors).

The most striking example is on parental leave: whilst a parent is entitled to unpaid time off up to a child's 5th birthday (18th from next April and already 18 where a disability living allowance is in place) - that time off is really focused on looking after the child and does not apply where the child dies.

The only direct provision is for neonatal deaths and babies who are stillborn but is also very rigid - applying only to a mother who loses a baby to take time off through the where the death or miscarriage happens after the 24th week of pregnancy where maternity leave is retained.

A rigid focus of five days bereavement leave may not suit everyone. The Acas Guidance will enable both employers and employees to personalise these arrangements through discussions and according to individual circumstances for both the employee and the particular business.

It encourages dialogue, asking the individual what they want communicated to colleagues and understanding that every individual will have their own needs in terms of mourning and religious observance.

It also goes beyond the issue of parents losing a child, touching on dealing with the death of colleagues and communication with other family members and indeed to staff who may be impacted by the bereavement itself or the absence of a colleague through a bereavement.

Read other blogs in our bereavement series

Steve Williams: Managing bereavement in the workplace

Bereavement information from Acas

Acas guidance on managing bereavement

pdf icon Managing bereavement in the workplace - a good practice guide [318kb]

1 Comment

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  • Posted by Claire Lawton  |  30 September 2014, 6:41PM

    The guidelines will be useful for employers on how to manage a bereavement, and to support the individuals, their team and the needs of the business in difficult times.

    It was an honour to be part of the launch of the guidelines.