It is hard to know what to do or say to someone who has suffered the unimaginable nightmare of losing a baby or child. The immediate and subsequent days, weeks and months following the death of a child are a time of great pain and confusion for a bereaved parent. These times are also a source of tremendous uncertainty for those around them as they grapple with a sense of helplessness watching their friend and colleague navigate this painful experience.

The government have now recognised that taking paid time off work under these circumstances should be a key employee right and published the Parental Bereavement (Pay & Leave) Bill on 13th October, it is expected to come into force in 2020. Introduced by Kevin Hollinrake MP, it will give employed parents with a minimum of 26 weeks of continuous service a day-one right to two weeks of paid parental bereavement leave if they lose a child under the age of 18. Employers will be able to reclaim some or all of the costs, and the proposals were first outlined in the Conservative manifesto, published earlier in the year.

You may be surprised that legislation doesn’t already exist in this area. Though many employers have their own policies for supporting bereaved members of staff, the Employment Rights Act only states that employees should have the right to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of unpaid time off work to deal with an emergency concerning a dependent, including making arrangements following a death.

Business minister, Margot James said, ‘We want parents to feel properly supported by their employer when they go through the deeply distressing ordeal of losing a child. That’s why Government is backing this bill which goes significantly further than most other countries in providing this kind of workplace right for employees’.

The proposed legislation has been warmly welcomed by charities that support those suffering from the bereavement of a child. Chief executive of Cruse Bereavement Care, Debbie Kerslake commented, ‘It is vital that at such a distressing time those who are bereaved can take time away from work’.

As a concerned and responsible employer if you find yourself with an employee in this situation, getting the first phone call right is critical.  Firstly you must acknowledge the child's death and offer your support and understanding, be prepared to listen and of course offer complete reassurance that there is no workplace expectation or pressure and work is the last thing they need to concern themselves with.  How this is handled cannot be underestimated.  Let them know you and their colleagues are ready to help in whatever way they need. No matter how brief the contact, these thoughtful gestures will always be appreciated and remembered even if it doesn’t appear immediately obvious.

Some suggestions on how you can help them through those initial days:

  • Ask them if you can call them again in a few days to see how they are doing.
  • Send flowers and a card or a donation in lieu of flowers on behalf of your company. This may help them with the cost of the funeral
  • Ask if they would like you or colleagues to attend the funeral and offer your full support
  • Cover their workload – let them know not to worry about their job as the work will get done
  • Ask how and what they would like you to communicate to their workplace and colleagues

You may already have your own policies and procedures, but with the new legislation this is a good opportunity for exemplary employers to consider their approach, and establish whether they’re giving their staff the best level of support during such a difficult time.  For further information and advice acas has a good practice guide on managing bereavement in the workplace.

It goes without saying here that you need to consider the longer-term impact of bereavement, and how staff are supported after their two weeks of leave. There is no right or wrong way to grieve - nor is there a set timetable for grief.  It may be the case that you’ll roll out flexible working provisions to help the bereaved get back to work, or that you’ll offer counseling. As with all initiatives that impact that workforce, it’s not just a case of creating your policies. You need to make sure that your line managers are appropriately equipped to deal with sensitive situations and are confident in their roles.

A parental bereavement policy is something that everyone hopes that they’ll never have to consider, but now is the time to think about how you give your employees what they need during tough times. Will you be reviewing your approach in light of the proposed legislative changes?

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