What is compassionate leave?

What is compassionate leave?

The very nature of compassionate leave means it requires sensitivity — people only request it when something sudden and unexpected has occurred in their personal lives. 

A compassionate leave policy is there to help your team first and foremost, but it also supports you as the employer, as it gives you a framework to work from during an emotional situation.

It’s important to write your compassionate leave policy before you need to apply it, so that: 

  • You’ll be able to quickly offer a member of your team the support they need;
  • They’ll be able to respond to the emergency without worrying where they stand with work;
  • You’re not on the back foot when making decisions. 

With compassionate leave, you’ve got to find a delicate balance between supporting an employee and keeping your business running smoothly during an unplanned absence. Which is why having a policy is essential.

But what if you don’t know where to start? Well, that’s where I come in… 

At Charlie, I spend my days advising startups and small businesses on HR best practice and employment law. So I can help you to understand what’s expected of you as an employer, and show you how to best support any employee who’s dealing with a difficult situation

In this blog, we’ll look at compassionate leave in detail, but we’ll leave out the jargon. 

After a few minutes of reading, you should feel informed and supported, and understand what to do next (which, when you think about it, is exactly how you want your team to feel because of your compassionate leave policy).

Book a call to find out more about HR Advice

What is compassionate leave?

GOV.UK defines compassionate leave as ‘paid or unpaid leave for emergency situations’, but employers need to add context and clarity around that in order for it to offer meaningful support to the people in their team. 

Differing from both bereavement leave and grievance leave, compassionate leave is for when an employee is dealing with a situation that’s sudden and unexpected — typically involving their loved ones or dependents. 

This could be something like:

  • A close family member suddenly falling ill
  • Being involved in a traumatic event like a car crash.

Under UK employment law, people are allowed time off work to deal with “an emergency involving a dependent”, and this is commonly referred to as compassionate leave. 

Do you get paid for compassionate leave?

As the employer, providing paid compassionate leave is at your discretion

But the vast majority of businesses choose to support their team by offering paid compassionate leave for a period of time. For example, X number of days at full pay, and X number of days at 50% pay. 

Whatever your stance, it’s important that you communicate your compassionate leave policy in advance of anyone in your team requiring it. As this makes responding to a difficult situation in real time much easier for you and the individual in question. 

Two of the best ways to communicate your compassionate leave policy is through your employment contracts and in your company handbook. 

Compassionate leave entitlement (how long is compassionate leave?)

As employers are not legally obliged to offer compassionate leave, there is no set length of leave entitlement

The length of compassionate leave therefore varies from business to business, and it may vary again depending on the scenario and the people involved (close family members versus close friends, for example). 

All of your employees are allowed time off work to deal with an emergency that involves a dependant according to GOV.UK — i.e. a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who depends on them for care — but if you don’t offer compassionate leave then this will be unpaid (or they may choose to use some of their holiday). 

It’s really important to clearly set out your compassionate leave policy so the people in your team know what they’re entitled to if faced with an unexpected emergency. You might base your compassionate leave allowance around some or all of the following: 

  • The size of your company
  • How their absence will affect business and everyone else in the team
  • How long the employee has worked for you
  • Any previous instances of compassionate leave (you may not have had a policy in place, but someone in your team may have already taken time off in a similar situation and you can use your response to this as a benchmark)
  • The nature of the relationship between your employee and the person/people involved in the event.

If you cannot afford to offer your employees paid compassionate leave, you can still offer them ‘unpaid leave on compassionate grounds’ or highlight the options around using any applicable annual or parental leave.

Compassionate leave or bereavement leave?

Compassionate leave and bereavement leave are two different things, but they’re frequently and easily confused. 

  • Bereavement leave is a specific type of leave given to employees who are experiencing the loss of a close family member or loved one. Its purpose is to give your employee the time to process the shock, to grieve, and to deal with difficult tasks like making funeral arrangements.
  • Compassionate leave can be granted if a family member is seriously ill or has a life-threatening condition. It gives an employee the time they need to be with their loved ones and to manage any important matters that may arise. 

So you wouldn’t grant bereavement leave or compassionate leave for a funeral. For that, you’d offer grievance leave, which is a specific type of leave for employees attending funerals or memorial services, and is typically shorter in duration. 

Compassionate leave examples

Compassionate leave is for the sudden and unexpected, but it’s best to clearly set out exactly what that means in your business’ policy.

The best way to illustrate compassionate leave is with examples of potential scenarios. Here are a few that you’re welcome to use or adapt:

  • Injury of a dependant (hurt in an accident, for example)
  • Sudden illness of a dependant (includes mental as well as physical ill health)
  • Incidents involving a child or children at school
  • A loved one going into early labour
  • Last minute cancellation of care arrangements (caregiver calls in sick)

You may also want to make it clear in your policy what compassionate leave doesn’t cover:

  • Time off for employee sickness (this comes under sick pay and you can have a look at the average number of sick days in the UK here)
  • Anything that’s known about in advance (like a scheduled hospital operation). 

It’s also a good idea to define relationships and the terms you use in your compassionate leave policy, as this will limit potential confusion. ‘Loved ones’ is a catch-all term that could apply to all sorts of people, for example. 

At Charlie, we have two tiers in our compassionate leave policy for extra clarity:

  • Tier 1 is for “an immediate family member or partner, or for treatment/care if you are in a life-threatening circumstance or receive a life-limiting diagnosis”;
  • And Tier 2 is for “a close relative or friend, or if you need to care for someone who is in a life-threatening or life-limiting situation”. 

Compassionate leave policy

A compassionate leave policy will help to take some of the emotion out of an emotional situation — typically, an employee will be reactive, anxious and stressed. 

The policy will also ensure you're being fair and consistent as an employer in how you deal with all compassionate leave requests. 

In your compassionate leave policy you should:

  • Explain how to make a compassionate leave request, and the sort of circumstances where it might be necessary
  • State whether compassionate leave at your business is paid or unpaid, and how many days’ leave employees are entitled to
  • List out  any required criteria  — definition of ‘dependants’, minimum length of employment etc.

Most small businesses set out their compassionate leave policy in their company handbook, so it sits with their other policies and is easily found by their team. 

How Charlie can help with your compassionate leave policy

Like you, we’re a small business. So we know and understand what you need. 

Charlie exists to help other small businesses with their HR, saving them admin time and hassle through expert HR advice and easy-to-use HR software. 

With our HR Advice service, you can access on demand support with a qualified HR advisor. Your advisor will answer all of your questions, ensure you comply with current employment law, and help you draft up your compassionate leave policy. 

They can also review your existing policies to check they’re up-to-date and link up, and then combine them together in a personalised company handbook

Our advisors are available to talk on the phone, and via chat and email whenever and as often as you need. 

Book a call to find out more about HR Advice

Storing your new compassionate leave policy and your company handbook is easy with Charlie’s HR software

You’ll also be able to review and update your compassionate leave policy whenever you want, and your team will be able to access it whenever they need.

Store your company handbook in CharlieHR

You can also use Charlie to track any type of employee leave, including compassionate leave:

  1. Employees can request compassionate leave from their Charlie dashboard
  2. Their managers are automatically notified
  3. You have full visibility of the number of sick, compassionate, parental, etc days each employees has taken in any given year
Use your company calendar in Charlie to have full visibility on who's off

But don’t just take our word for it!

Try Charlie for free and find out for yourself how easy it is to track annual leave and securely save and access important business and employee documents. 

Charlie takes away the faff, and you can focus on what really matters.

Start a free trial of Charlie's HR software today

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