Bereavement leave must be enshrined in law

A report from Patricia Gibson MP, writing on 6th December 2020, concerning her work campaigning for bereavement leave.

Last week, I was delighted to lead a Westminster debate highlighting the need for statutory paid bereavement leave for all workers who lose a close family member or partner.

In recent years, I worked cross party to secure paid bereavement leave for parents who lost a child, a measure finally introduced last April. Ground-breaking as that achievement was, it simply did not go far enough.

The global health pandemic has touched us all and given us a greater understanding of the fragility of life and the profound and cruelly random nature of loss and bereavement. The huge public support for measures to control the COVID-19 virus is because we have all lost, or fear losing, a loved one.

Despite this, a third of employees who experience a bereavement do not receive any contact from their employers about bereavement rights, and only 32% know if their workplace has a bereavement policy.

Bereavement can trigger depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, and is linked to an increased likelihood of heart attacks, diabetes and mortality. Eight million working people in the UK, around a quarter, experienced bereavement last year. While many employers are supportive and understanding, some are not. Such a profoundly life-changing experience, with potentially long-term consequences, cannot and must not be left to employer goodwill.

Typically, UK employers offer 3-5 days compassionate leave for the death of a close relative, but its discretionary nature means potentially thousands of employees are unable to take leave without fearing that it could undermine their job security.

Bereaved people in low paid jobs are far less likely to receive paid time off or any compassionate leave at all and are at greater risk of losing their job if they do, and to struggle with the immediate financial impact of bereavement. This increases the pressure and financial stress on employees trying to cope with the loss of a close family member. Death is a great leveller, so time and space to grieve without worrying about loss of pay, or pressure to return to work too soon, should be available to all.

There are strong economic reasons for paid bereavement leave. Research by bereavement support charity Sue Ryder shows that grief experienced by employees who lost a loved one costs the UK economy £23 billion and the Treasury £8 billion annually.

This impact arises from grieving staff being unable to work productively whilst dealing with the emotional, practical and financial aspects of coping with loss, potentially leading to increased mental health and social care needs. So, while statutory bereavement leave will have to be funded, the workforce will be more productive and resilient.