Compassionate leave: what are the rules for employers?

Compassionate leave is when a person takes time off to deal with an emergency involving someone who depends on them. Find out everything you need to know about compassionate leave, from how many days you should provide to an employee’s rights and pay implications.

Company Culture
Wellbeing at Work

⋅ min read

Part of being a respected employer is supporting your employees through the tough times as well as the good. That often involves offering compassionate leave, which is when a person takes time off to deal with an emergency involving someone who depends on them. Find out everything you need to know about compassionate leave, from how many days you should provide to an employee’s rights and pay implications.

When might someone need to take compassionate leave?

There are numerous occasions when an employee might need to take time off work for compassionate reasons. For example, if a relative or someone close to them is dying or has been diagnosed with terminally ill. Or perhaps their dependent dies. It can also apply to less grave situations, for instance, if your partner is struggling with depression or grief, or is giving birth (although compassionate leave does not apply to taking time off after the baby is born). 

Basically, it’s any situation involving someone who depends on you – whether that’s a parent, child, partner or someone else in your household. A dependant may also be anyone who reasonably relies on you for help, like an elderly neighbour living alone who falls and hurts themself. The key message here is that going to work after a death or traumatic event is extremely difficult for employees — but a compassionate leave policy can help them grieve during this time.

It’s worth noting that compassionate leave does not apply to a situation that you already knew about or was planned for. For example, if an employee needs to take their child to a scheduled hospital appointment, they should not request compassionate leave for this.

How much leave are employees entitled to?

In emergency situations, there’s no hard and fast rule as to an employee's compassionate leave entitlement. According to the law, it should just be a “reasonable” amount of time. The problem with that is that it’s subjective, so while a week might be a lot to one person, it might not be enough to another. CIPD found that 40% of companies offer 3-5 days of compassionate leave, for example. 

In general, it’s best to err on the side of generosity – an employee who’s going through a difficult time will definitely appreciate it. Of course, the amount of time off you allow will depend on the seriousness of the situation.

There's no limit to the number of times employees can take compassionate leave, either (as long as it's for real emergencies involving dependants). If you feel a certain employee is taking more time off than you can cope with – or if someone is taking advantage of the system – you’re within your rights to warn them about this.

Are employees entitled to be paid during compassionate leave?

There’s no legal right for an employee to receive full pay during time off for compassionate leave. But many businesses do pay, particularly if the employee only takes a day or so off work. If you’re not willing to offer paid compassionate leave, an employee might use their holiday allowance or ask to take unpaid leave. As an employer, it’s best to be empathetic towards each individual’s situation, and remember that everyone handles grief differently – some people need more time than others.

The exception to this is for parental bereavement leave, which is applicable to anyone who loses a child under the age of 18 or suffers a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy. In this case, employers must give staff at least two weeks’ time off and statutory pay. By law, employees should receive either 90% of their average weekly wages, or £156.66 a week (whichever is lower). To be eligible for statutory pay, the employee must have worked for you for at least 26 weeks. You can find more information on parental bereavement leave on the website.

Do employees have any rights during compassionate leave?

Everyone is entitled to fair treatment from their employer. That means, while an employee is on compassionate leave, you cannot:

  • Make the employee redundant or dismiss them for taking time off
  • Treat the employee unfairly due to your time off e.g. refuse you a promotion
  • Deny the employee ‘reasonable’ time off

It’s a good idea to have a compassionate leave policy in place, detailing how you’ll support anyone who needs to take time off, to make the rules fair for everyone. Remember to include a level of flexibility to allow for different incidents, but the more information you provide, the easier you’ll make an already difficult situation for the person involved. 

As a business, building strong relationships with your employees will only benefit you in the long run – whether that’s through a more loyal workforce or higher productivity. Showing empathy is likely to be rewarded with respect and appreciation, and it’s the least your hard-working employees deserve.

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