How Does Compassionate Leave Work?


Compassionate leave is, in some ways, another word for bereavement leave. It’s a form of time off that may be offered after the death of a close loved one or in other emergency situations. Though the United States has no formal provisions for bereavement leave, many companies offer paid leave for a short period of time after a loss. 

Jump ahead to these sections: 

Dealing with the death of a family member or friend is never easy. Not only are there a lot of planning tasks to handle related to the funeral, but you’re also dealing with the grief of this loss. Taking time off work can be the best way to focus on what matters most: being there with family while you heal. 

Most people can understand why compassionate leave is important. But how does it work? Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion behind compassionate leave and whether it works the same as bereavement leave. In this guide, we’ll share everything you need to know so you can take advantage of these programs when it matters most. 

» MORE: Create a free online memorial. Honor your loved one, share funeral details, and collect memories and tributes.

What’s the Meaning of Compassionate Leave?

Compassionate leave, as explained above, is in some ways another term for bereavement leave. Both terms refer to time off taken by an employee. However, compassionate leave may apply to a variety of emergency or medical situations. In contrast, bereavement leave applies explicitly to time off after the death of an immediate family member.

The specific amount of paid leave is at the employer’s discretion. The employee may also take additional time off (unpaid), depending on the situation. Most employers give between one and three days of paid compassionate leave. 

In the United States, there is no federal law that grants paid bereavement leave to employees. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for any family-related medical matter. But there are no policies that require employers to provide paid time off. 

Most large businesses with over 50 employees offer some form of bereavement or compassionate leave. However, smaller businesses often do not.

Where do people use the term?

The term “compassionate leave” is more common outside of the United States. In Europe, Canada, and Australia, “compassionate leave” is often used in the place of “bereavement leave.” 

Some employers in the US use the term “compassionate leave,” too, however. This is especially true in the case of grief or hardship unrelated to a family member’s death, where “bereavement leave” might not be entirely accurate. 

It’s essential to understand your company’s bereavement leave and compassionate leave policies. That way, you can make sure you know your rights in case of an emergency. 

Is there a difference between compassionate leave and bereavement leave?

In general, there are few differences between compassionate leave and bereavement leave. The one exception, as mentioned above, is that compassionate leave can apply to a broader range of situations. It’s up to an employer to identify what they consider “bereavement” or “compassionate leave.” 

Most of the time, “bereavement leave” refers specifically to the loss of a close family member. On the other hand, “compassionate leave” can be any type of leave granted out of compassion for the employee. This varies by employer, but it might include any of the following:

  • Death of a pet
  • Death of a coworker
  • Time to see a therapist/grief counselor
  • Travel time for a funeral
  • Family emergency
  • Family illness or injury
  • Catastrophe or natural disaster

Again, it’s up to the employer to determine what leave is allowed under the “compassionate leave” umbrella. Some compassionate leave is unpaid, or it might only be paid for up to three days. 

» MORE: Our story doesn't end at the grave. Honor your loved one with a free online memorial.

Who Usually Qualifies for Compassionate Leave at Work?

If you’ve recently experienced the loss of a loved one, you’re entitled to ask for compassionate leave at work. It’s up to your specific company just how much of this time is paid. For most larger corporations, you can expect anywhere from one to three days of paid time off. 

To qualify for any type of compassionate or bereavement leave, you usually need to be a full-time employee. Some employers might also ask for documentation, such as a death certificate, funeral program, or obituary.

It’s also important to consider FMLA leave, which differs from both compassionate leave and bereavement leave. If you work for a company or organization with more than 50 full-time employees, FMLA gives you the right to take up to 12 weeks off per year while maintaining your job security. You can take this time off for a variety of family medical crises, including a death in the family. However, this time off is unpaid.

FMLA leave is unpaid, so it’s not considered bereavement leave or compassionate leave. Instead, FMLA leave is a right that you have if you work for certain companies or organizations, including government positions.

If you don’t qualify for FMLA, but you need more time off than your employer grants in bereavement or compassionate leave, you can usually request additional time. However, this might come out of your vacation or sick leave. 

Your employer may also deny your request for additional time off, whether paid or unpaid. There’s no requirement for your employer to provide leave unless you quality for FMLA.

What Do Compassionate Leave Policies Look Like in the UK, Canada, and Australia?

Different countries around the world sometimes have more protections when it comes to compassionate and bereavement leave. Let’s examine the most common policies in the UK, Canada, and Australia. 

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has progressive laws around family emergencies and time off. As an employee, you have the right to take time off to deal with an emergency involving any dependent. This is typically a child, younger sibling, elderly parent, or a loved one with a disability. 

You’re allowed a reasonable amount of time to deal with this emergency situation, including a funeral. There is no strict, set-in-stone amount of time. Instead, it depends on the situation and your employer’s protocols. You might qualify for parental leave or annual leave depending on the nature of the emergency. 

It’s important to note that in the UK, your employer is not required to pay you for time off to look after dependents. Many do offer paid leave, but this isn’t always true. If you’re not given time off for dependent care, your employer might give you what’s specifically called “compassionate leave.” This is when they offer unpaid or paid leave for emergencies. 


Canada also offers compassionate leave. This is known as compassionate care leave, and it is unpaid. As an employee in a federally regulated industry, you can take up to 28 weeks of compassionate leave within a year-long period. This time can be used to look after a family member with a serious medical condition. 

In Canada, this leave only begins once a health care practitioner determines someone is gravely ill and in need of additional care. This leave ends after the 28 weeks are complete or when the family member dies or no longer needs care. The employer is not required to pay the employee during this time. 

Bereavement leave is a separate thing in Canada, and it is only offered to employees who have worked for an employer for over three months. This can be paid or unpaid leave. 


Lastly, Australia is the country with the most concrete compassionate leave of any of the places we’ve examined. Like in the United States, compassionate leave and bereavement leave are sometimes used interchangeably. An employee can use compassionate leave after a family member in their immediate household dies or contracts an illness or injury. 

All employees are entitled to two days of compassionate leave. These days can be taken separately or consecutively. This leave does not come out of their sick or carer’s leave, and it can be taken at any time. Both full-time and part-time employees are paid for compassionate leave. Casual employees receive this leave unpaid. 

When it comes to how to ask for leave, the employee is encouraged to request this leave as soon as possible. The employer is also allowed to ask for evidence, as needed. 

Get the Leave You Need

When you’re dealing with shocking news or a loss, the last thing you might want to do is continue working like normal. It’s difficult to handle everyday tasks, let alone work-related goals. Taking time off in the form of compassionate or bereavement leave allows you some much-needed time to heal and get the support you need. 

While how long you should take off after a death depends on your location and employer, it’s important to know your rights. Now is the best time to review your employer handbook as well as any benefits afforded to you. This way, you’ll always know your rights if tragedy does strike. 


  1. “Compassionate & bereavement leave.” Fair Work Ombudsman. Australian Government.
  2. “Family and Medical Leave Act.” U.S. Department of Labor.
  3. “Time off for family and dependents.” United Kingdom Government.
  4. “Types of leaves you can receive as an employee working in federally regulated industries and workplaces.” Canada Government: Workplace Standards.

Icons sourced from FlatIcon.