Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

The time has come for the UK Government to introduce statutory paid bereavement leave – Heidi Travis

The coronavirus pandemic has not only opened up conversations around grief, it has also cast a spotlight on the urgent need to better support employees who are dealing with a bereavement.

Sue Ryder research has shown that in the last 12 months, 7.9 million people in employment (that’s 24% of all employees [1] ) have experienced a bereavement. Yet, there is currently no legal requirement for UK employers to grant bereavement leave – except for parents who have lost a child under the age of 18. 

That means it’s up to employers to decide how much time employees are allowed off work when someone they love dies – if they are given any time at all. Imagine, you’ve just lost your partner, parent, or sibling – and you might not be able to take a single day off to grieve, without worrying about you the future of your job. It’s unthinkable.

Unfortunately, bereavement is a normal part of life that all of us will experience at some point. The grief that follows can be debilitating and additional stressors, such as work, can feel overwhelming.

I’ve heard too many stories from people who’ve felt obliged to return to work straight after the death of someone close to them, when they simply weren’t ready. As a result, many people who experience a bereavement are forced to take unpaid leave as they come to terms with their loss and start to process their grief.

Furthermore, research shows that low income workers are at higher risk of experiencing persistent grief.  This is not only because many are on zero hours contracts and are unable to take the time they need to grieve and face a higher impact of financial losses post-bereavement, but because they face more barriers in accessing appropriate services and information to help them cope with grief. [2]

Sue Ryder believes that introducing a statutory right to two weeks paid bereavement leave would be a significant step forward. This would mean that people who are in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death do not need to worry about work and are not put under any pressure to return to work.

It would also alleviate some of the immediate financial strain and provide employees with the security of knowing that they are being given paid leave, without concerns of how they are being perceived or possibly penalised.

In addition to ensuring that employees are being supported, research also suggests that introducing paid statutory bereavement leave will have a wider positive impact for society, by addressing some of the financial impacts of unresolved grief, and its cost to the economy.

For instance, extensive research conducted by Sue Ryder found that workplace grief costs the UK economy £23bn a year and HM Treasury nearly £8bn a year through reduced tax revenues and increased use of NHS and social care resources. [3]

While investing in adequate bereavement leave and support may result in initial short-term cost, implementing statutory bereavement leave could in fact lead to a significant saving for the UK economy and the treasury in the long term, through reduced staff absence, higher employee productivity and a lesser reliance on the health and benefits system post-bereavement.

As a national bereavement charity, Sue Ryder believes that everyone in the UK deserves the right to bereavement leave. And we’re not alone. In the month since the campaign launched, over 17,000 people across the UK have signed up to show their support, and MPs are now raising the proposal with government.

While bereavement leave will not take away the pain of losing a loved one, we believe working with others to take this campaign forward is vital, as this bereavement leave is fundamental to give people the space they need to start to deal with the impacts of a bereavement, without the added pressure of immediately returning to work. We look forward to continuing to make the case in the coming months.  

Heidi Travis is Chief Executive at Sue Ryder

1 – Additional research was commissioned with a survey conducted by Censuswide in September 2020 surveying 1,000 working age adults, 1,000 Scottish working age adults and 500 bereaved people of working age in the last 12 months.
2 – Newsom, C., Stroebe, M. S., Schut, H., Wilson, S., Birrell, J., Moerbeek, M., & Eisma, M. C. (2019). Community-based counseling reaches and helps bereaved people living in low-income households. Psychotherapy research29(4), 479-491.
3 – Sue Ryder commissioned an economist in September 2020 to conduct a literature review of current research.