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Practical Wellbeing Topics

Managing Bereavement

Managing Bereavement


When faced with bereavement in the school or college, either directly or where a member of staff has lost someone close to them, senior leaders are often concerned about how best to manage the impact sensitively and what support is appropriate to offer. This guidance considers employees’ legal rights and best practice management in this context, as well as signposting some additional sources of support and assistance.

Summary of employees' legal rights

Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay: employees who lose a child under 18 or suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy will receive up to 2 weeks’ leave (which can be taken in two separate blocks of one week if desired). Subject to meeting eligibility criteria (minimum of 26 weeks’ service and earnings test) they will also be able to claim parental bereavement pay at the statutory rate, which mirrors the rate for statutory paternity / shared parental pay. Additional detail can be found in our Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay Guidance.

Stillbirths: employees who suffer a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy are still entitled to statutory maternity leave (and pay, subject to the usual eligibility rules). The death of a child following a live birth equally has no impact on maternity leave and pay entitlements.

Time off for dependants: under the Employment Rights Act 1996 an employee may take ‘reasonable’ time off work to deal with an emergency, which would include a bereavement involving a dependant (e.g. partner, child, parent or someone else who depended on the employee for care). You can find out more about this right on our Time Off for Dependants page.

Compassionate leave: there is no specific legal right to take ‘compassionate leave’ so this is a question of local policy. It is good practice to offer employees some paid leave following the death of someone close. Some employers choose to offer different amounts of leave depending on the proximity of the relationship whilst others prefer to have a set number of days for any significant bereavement. Whilst having a baseline can be useful to help ensure that one employee is not treated less favourably than another, every bereavement situation is different and flexibility should be exercised so that each set of circumstances can be considered on a case-by-case basis. Additional unpaid leave can, of course, be granted.

Reasonable adjustments: remember that an employee experiencing ongoing mental health difficulties as a consequence of bereavement could be considered disabled under the Equality Act in some cases, triggering the requirement to make reasonable adjustments. Occupational health advice may assist in such circumstances.

What to do when an employee suffers a bereavement

Senior leaders can support their staff by:

  • Acknowledging the bereavement and offering their condolences.
  • Ensure the employee knows that they are not expected to come into work following the news and that they must take what time out is needed.
  • Ask how they would like to stay in contact. Is phone or email contact preferred? Are there particular times to avoid? In the first few days, they may not wish to speak to anyone as they may be in shock. Be careful not to pressurise the employee into making decisions at this point.
  • Ask how much information they wish their colleagues to have about the death; remember that this information is private under data protection legislation and stick strictly to the facts.
  • Consider what action needs to be taken if the death is in the media; particularly if the press contact the school/college or approach colleagues seeking an interview.
  • Ask if the employee wishes to be contacted by colleagues.
  • Be conscious of diversity and the impact this may have on, for example, days taken to allow the employee to fulfil religious or cultural expectations such as mourning rituals.
  • Be open to revising and reviewing the situation with the employee. Keep the dialogue open.
  • Explore with the employee what extra support would be helpful.
  • Signpost supportive services. if you subsribe to an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) or have a trained adult mental health first aider ensure your employee has the contact details. If not, signpost to relevant organisations and charities that can support bereaved employees.


Things to bear in mind:

A conversation about when the employee anticipates returning to work may not be appropriate in the first days of bereavement. However it is important to start a dialogue which will allow an open discussion around how the employee is coping, the employer’s policy on bereavement, when they might be ready to return to work, and any adjustments that might help with this (e.g. a phased return).

Remember that every bereavement situation is different: some employees may feel able to (and may wish to) return to work very swiftly whilst others may need more time. The relationship with the person who died and the circumstances of the death will all have an impact on the employee, particularly if the death was sudden or traumatic. It is often difficult for bereaved employees to judge how they will feel in the workplace, and a swift return to work does not necessarily mean that an employee will not need support.

Returning to work

The full emotional impact of the bereavement may not be felt for some time after a death and there are likely to be ups and downs as the bereaved person adjusts.

Regular reviews will allow the manager and the bereaved employee to discuss and agree any strategies or adjustments which may be needed to enable them to return to work and to support them in the workplace after their return. This might lead to a temporary or long-term change to, for example, hours or responsibilities. Where the school/college provides access to one, a referral to an employee assistance programme (EAP) might be appropriate. It should be clear to the employee who in the school/college they should talk to if they need additional support.

If a bereaved employee is worried about how they will be treated by colleagues on their return to work, ask them what would help and offer to share this with the wider team. For example, some employees may ask that no one mentions the bereavement, but instead keep things focused on work matters. Others will appreciate gestures of empathy and support.

Special or significant days, such as the inquest, anniversary of the death, or the birthday of the person who died, can also be particularly difficult times for bereaved people. Sensitivity around these times, particularly when considering requests for specific days off, will help employees to manage their grief.

Managing sick leave and performance appropriately

The physical and emotional impact of grief may mean that some bereaved employees become unwell and are unable to be at work for a period of time after a bereavement. As a result they may take time off sick. Over the course of a year, a bereaved employee may breach absence trigger points. Managers should consider whether it is appropriate to exclude some or all of the time off associated with the bereavement. Similarly, it would be good practice to take the bereavement into account should there be an impact on any aspect of the employee’s work or performance irrespective of any ongoing issues between the employer and employee.

Some bereaved employees may need additional time away from work to cope with their grief, make practical arrangements, or to support a bereaved child. In cases where the employee feels they need time away from work but where sick leave is not appropriate, it would be good practice to offer an alternative, for example flexible or part-time working, or a period of special leave or a career break. This can be paid or unpaid.

Managing the employee's changed circumstances

Bereavement will frequently lead to changes in the personal and financial circumstances of the bereaved employee. An employee who loses their partner, for example, becomes responsible for raising their children as a single parent. An employee whose sibling dies may take on caring responsibilities for an elderly parent. Any death which affects children or vulnerable adults will mean they need increased support from the people who care for them.

School leaders and line managers should be mindful of the family unit of the bereaved employee, and appreciate that, in many cases, a flexible approach – for example, offering part-time hours or flexible working – is most likely to support and retain the employee, and minimise sick days, as they negotiate new or increased caring responsibilities.

When an employee's child dies

For parents, the loss of a child will be devastating and it is important to recognise that the whole family will be affected. For example, is the employee a single parent? Was the child an only child or are there siblings involved? The answers to these questions may influence how much support from the workplace is needed. A single parent with other children to attend to will possibly need more flexibility (e.g. time off, flexible working etc.) in order to return to full-time work over time. Some bereaved parents may need a longer-term change to their working hours.

A couple grieving over the death of a child may also need flexibility regarding their working hours especially if one parent is not coping as well as the other. They may need to leave the workplace at short notice to support their partner.

When a colleague dies

The principles of flexibility and empathy outlined above still very much apply when it is an employee who has died but there may be an increased impact on the school/college and the way it is dealt with can have long-lasting implications (positive or negative) on the relations between the school/college, the staff and the wider community.

How the news of the death is communicated to other employees is key to this and the method of communication should be personal and sensitive. There may be areas of the organisation, for example the team or department where the person who died worked, that are particularly affected and they may need more support.

A representative from the school/college should contact the family to offer condolences and agree a point of contact for any questions they may have, for example about pay or pension arrangements. Practical points like books of condolence and attendance at the funeral should be considered by managers and clearly communicated to the wider staff. There may be appropriate ways of commemorating the person who has died and of marking key dates; the family should be consulted about these.

More detailed guidance on responding to the death of an employee is available.

The impact on deaths on the wider school / college community

The guidance on this page focuses on workplace issues but, of course, in schools and colleges there is an even broader impact when a pupil or member of staff dies. Some points to bear in mind:

  • Beyond informing staff, pupils and parents about the fact of the death, be sensitive to the grieving family’s wishes and only provide what details they have consented to be made public. Reassure pupils that they should talk about the death and how they are feeling.
  • Allow pupils to take time from their lessons to talk about their reactions and consider opening a book of remembrance or similar to allow pupils to express their feelings.
  • Ensure that school staff meet regularly initially to support each other and to discuss how best to support the pupils.
  • Liaise with the family about funeral arrangements and whether they are happy for colleagues / pupils to attend. Pupils may need support with what to expect if they have not attended a funeral before.
  • Talk to pupils and staff about appropriate ways of remembering the person who has died, such as holding a memorial service or planting a tree.

Further Advice and Support

Our HR team can provide advice on particular cases and many employee assistance programmes can also offer support with handling traumatic events, such as through the provision of counselling services.

Practical advice for schools on what to do in the event of a death can be found on the Cruse Bereavement Care website in the schools section.

ACAS also provides guidance on bereavement in the workplace (on which this guidance is based) which is available on their website. Child Bereavement UK  and Macmillan Cancer Support also provide advice for managers on handling bereavement.

What are the key differences in the way schools should seek to manage bereavement during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Communicating with next of kin: Due to social distancing requirements a personal visit to the family of the deceased to pay respects may not be appropriate and limitations around funeral numbers may prevent colleagues being able to attend.

Notifying colleagues of the death: Those staff members who are closest to the deceased should be contacted first, using the mechanism which is most appropriate bearing in mind how the school is currently operating. Once this group of staff have been informed, some small schools may be able to inform all other colleagues in socially-distanced groups or via audio or video conference for anyone not on site. In larger schools, the leadership team will likely need to share the communication between them, informing each team of colleagues separately.Confirm to staff how and when you will be sharing the news with pupils and signpost sources of support for those who may be feeling distressed.

Notifying other parties: When an employee has died as a result of coronavirus, schools will need to balance the wishes of the family of the deceased (regarding what information can be shared with the school community) with their own duty of care to protect the health and safety of everyone in the school. The Information Commissioner's Office advises that schools tell staff (as well as anyone else who may have had contact with the affected person), that a staff member has died as a result of coronavirus. There is no requirement to identify them by name though in a school community it will be self-evident.

Supporting grieving staff from a distance: It may be more difficult than normal to support grieving staff whilst adhering to social distancing and other infection-prevention measures in place. Guidance on how to structure a conversation with a newly-bereaved member of staff can be found above. If bereaved staff are working at home, ensure you maintain regular contact even if you are unable to visit in person, signposting any means of support available such as counselling via an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or relevant charity.

Grieving in the midst of a pandemic: School leaders need to be mindful of the impact of the pandemic on the grieving process. Cruse Bereavement Care advises that the pandemic can make grief harder to process as dealing with a bereavement, whilst managing feelings or worry about external situations, may mean feelings of grief aren’t fully expressed. Isolation can make feelings of loneliness and grief much more intense whereas a sudden and unexpected loss, combined with not being able to spend time with a loved one who is dying, and not being able to follow cultural or religious rites and rituals arounds death, can often lead to staff suffering traumatic bereavement. Cruse Bereavement Care provides detailed guidance on managing traumatic loss.

Additional support for staff and pupils: If a staff member has died it won’t currently be possible to hold a special assembly or whole school memorial service to remember them, though it may be possible to undertake activities in smaller groups. Schools can, however, still provide the opportunity for staff and pupils to come together to create an online memorial web page or hold a virtual memorial service online. Winston’s Wish, a charity that supports bereaved young people and their families has a wealth of resources to support pupils grieving the loss of family members or members of the school community.