What Is Compassionate Leave and When Can Employees Take It?

In life, unexpected events like a family emergency, a bereavement, or a personal crisis can significantly affect our wellbeing. During these challenging times, employees may need to step away from work responsibilities.

This type of absence is commonly known as compassionate leave. This blog will take you through everything you need to know about compassionate leave, including:

  • What is compassionate leave?
  • How does compassionate leave work?
  • How does it differ from bereavement leave?
  • Applicable UK laws
  • Are employees entitled to compassionate leave?
  • How much compassionate leave is an employee entitled to?
  • How to create a compassionate leave policy.


What is compassionate leave?

Compassionate leave is not a legal right in itself but should be offered as part of the reasonable employer’s duties to support employee welfare. It allows employees to take time off to deal with significant personal or family emergencies. This isn’t limited to the death of a family member – it may also include dealing with severe illnesses, childcare emergencies, being involved in or witnessing a traumatic event, or being a victim of crime. It’s designed to help employees manage their responsibilities and stress during distressing times.


What’s the difference between compassionate leave and bereavement leave?

It’s important to distinguish between compassionate leave and bereavement leave, as they serve different purposes. Bereavement leave is specifically reserved for the death of a loved one, providing time for grief, attending a funeral and managing related affairs.

On the other hand, compassionate leave is broader, covering various urgent situations that affect personal or family wellbeing, not limited to bereavement. This distinction helps employers provide appropriate support depending on the circumstances.

Bereavement leave is also not an automatic legal entitlement in its own right but will often fall within the right for time off for dependants, described below.


Understanding the UK laws and regulations surrounding compassionate leave

As mentioned above, UK legislation does not specifically mandate employers to provide compassionate or bereavement leave. However, under the Employment Rights Act 1996, employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to handle emergencies concerning a ‘dependant.’

This could be to provide or arrange care or assistance when a dependent falls ill, deal with a breakdown in care, unexpected need for childcare or due to the death of a dependent. The law stipulates that this leave should be unpaid unless the employer offers additional benefits through company policy.


Are employees entitled to compassionate leave?

While there’s no statutory right to compassionate leave in the UK, many employers choose to offer it as part of their overall benefits package. These arrangements are usually discretionary but can be a crucial part of the support system that companies provide to their employees. Offering compassionate leave can help maintain morale and employee loyalty during critical times.


Time off for dependants

Understanding who qualifies as a ‘dependant’ is crucial for both employees and employers. The term typically includes:

  • Your spouse or civil partner
  • Your children
  • Your parents
  • Any person who lives in the same household (excluding tenants, lodgers, or employees)

This definition helps determine eligibility for statutory time off in emergency situations, aligning with the provisions under the Employment Rights Act. The Act does not define a minimum or maximum period for time off for dependants.


How long is compassionate leave?

The duration of compassionate leave can vary greatly and is often at the discretion of the employer, guided by company policy. Typically, employers may offer between three to five days of leave for severe cases such as the death of an immediate family member. However, the length of leave might vary based on the employee’s specific circumstances and their relationship to the person involved in the emergency.


Do you get paid for compassionate leave?

There is no legal requirement in the UK for employers to provide paid compassionate leave. Whether compassionate leave is paid is at the discretion of the employer and should be specified in the employment contract or company policy. If it will be paid in some circumstances but not others, this should also be clearly set out in the contract or policy and applied fairly and consistently.

Some organisations choose to offer paid leave as part of their commitment to supporting employees through difficult times, enhancing their corporate social responsibility and employee satisfaction.


How to create a compassionate leave policy

A well-defined compassionate leave policy is essential for ensuring fairness and clarity within the workplace. Here’s what to include when creating a policy:

Eligibility criteria

Clearly define who qualifies for compassionate leave and under what conditions.

Request process

Detail the steps employees must follow to request compassionate leave, including any necessary documentation or evidence required.

Duration and frequency

Specify the maximum duration of leave allowed and how often an employee can take compassionate leave (if applicable).

Payment and benefits

State clearly whether compassionate leave is paid and how it may impact other employee benefits.

Confidentiality and privacy

Ensure the policy respects the employee’s privacy and handles all matters confidentially to maintain trust and respect.

Support resources and return-to-work plans

Provide information on available support resources, such as counselling services, and outline a clear return-to-work plan to help employees transition back to work smoothly.


Partner with us for expert compassionate leave guidance

Navigating compassionate leave requires sensitivity and an understanding of legal and emotional aspects. At Citation, we offer comprehensive HR & Employment Law services, including a 24/7 advice line manned by friendly HR consultants, easy-to-use HR software, and resources like Employee Handbooks and an Employee Assistance Programme. So, if you want to know more about what is compassionate leave and how much compassionate leave is an employee entitled to then don’t hesitate to get in touch!

For more information on how we can help you effectively support your employees during difficult times, contact us and explore our full range of services.

Get more information

Pop in your details and we'll call you straight back

We'll get back to you as soon as we can.