No time off for grieving: 'Inside I was screaming'

By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Ian BainbridgeImage source, Ian Bainbridge

When Ian Bainbridge's son Ellis was stillborn after 34 weeks, he thought he would at least have time to grieve.

The tragedy was compounded because negligent medical staff had failed to spot that his partner Lisa was pregnant in the first place. As a result, she nearly died in childbirth.

But he ended up having to take a day's annual leave just to attend his son's funeral. Otherwise, there was no respite at all from his job.

"I went to work a complete mess for the next four to six weeks," he told the BBC.

Now he welcomes the fact that in future, parents who lose a child will receive two weeks' paid bereavement leave under new government rules.

"Two weeks isn't much, but looking back on my experience, it would have been a breathing space," he says.

The new law will come into force in April, with the UK being the only country to have that right to time off, MPs said.

It will be known as Jack's Law, in memory of Jack Herd, whose mother Lucy has been campaigning for reform since he drowned aged 23 months in 2010.

As the law currently stands, there is no automatic right to paid time off for such bereavement. However, parents of stillborn children are entitled to maternity and paternity leave.

Under the new law, parents who lose a child under the age of 18 will be able to take leave as either a single block of two weeks, or as two separate blocks of one week each across the first year after the death.

'I felt alone'

Ian, an ex-nurse who worked in social care in Lewisham in south-east London, was responsible for managing 40 carers. He remembers vividly what happened when he broke the news of his loss to his bosses.

"I rang my line manager and said, 'You won't believe what's happened.' He said, 'I'm sorry to hear that, but I've got no-one to cover for you tomorrow. You're going to have to come in.' Ellis was stillborn at 10pm and I was in work at eight o'clock the next day.

"I was back answering the telephone, being polite. Inside I was screaming."

The experience took its toll on Ian. He and Lisa split up three years later, he lost all interest in his job and he even contemplated suicide.

"The only thing that kept me going was I had two children from a previous marriage," he said.

Now aged 57, Ian currently lives in Ilford. He has a new partner and they plan to move north to Carlisle.

Five years have gone by since the tragedy. "It's the old cliche, time is a healer," Ian says.

But he admits that he blamed himself for a long time for what happened: "I felt very isolated and alone."

Media caption,
Lucy Herd successfully campaigned for parents to get paid bereavement leave

After talking to her relatives, Lucy Herd, from Cumbria, found that three days was sometimes the maximum leave workplaces offered parents to grieve, she told the BBC.

"Anything from 24 hours to three days and any extra time taken had to be sick leave or holiday," she said.

When she spoke to other bereaved parents, she found a gap between what employers were saying and how working parents were treated.

"More and more people told me they had experienced the same thing. Employers were saying 'take as much time as you need', and they were taking six months off, and it was down on their record as being off sick. They'd come back to a P45 on their desk."

"I had to make a positive out of a negative" in campaigning for change, she said.

She would like to see similar rights extended to those grieving any loved one.

"When I started this it was about everyone's bereavement," she said. "Grief is grief."

The Parental Bereavement (Pay and Leave) Bill received royal assent in 2018, and will now come into force.

The Conservatives made a commitment in their 2017 general election manifesto to introduce "a new entitlement to child bereavement leave".

Under the new rules, people who have been employed for at least 26 weeks will be entitled to a minimum payment of up to £148 a week during their bereavement leave, depending on the level of their salary.

Image caption,
Clea Harmer, chief executive of Sands, a stillbirth and neonatal death charity, said parents also need support after such a traumatic event

Clea Harmer, chief executive of Sands, a stillbirth and neonatal death charity, told the BBC the new rules were a good start, but that the time off should be part of broader care for parents who have lost a child.

"A lot of parents, after the death of a baby or a child, suffer the sort of grief or reaction to grief that needs psychological intervention," she said. Time off and support early on can make a big difference, she said.

Bereavement leave and the law

The new rules will take effect in April, but as the law stands, there is no automatic right to paid time off for bereavement.

  • Anyone classed as an employee has the right to time off for a "dependant"
  • This time off is for dealing with unexpected issues and emergencies involving the dependant, including leave to arrange or attend a funeral
  • The law does not say how much time off can be taken. It simply says the amount should be "reasonable"
  • Employers can treat time off for bereavement as sick leave or holiday leave, depending on their workplace policy and the individual circumstances
  • If the employee takes the time off as sick leave or holiday leave, their normal sick or holiday pay will apply.

Source: Acas

Another area requiring improvement is breaking the stigma of talking about the death of children, Ms Harmer added.

The new measures are "an indication we are doing well", she said, but "we could do better".

"People don't talk about the death of a baby or a child leaving parents very isolated."

Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said the measures were "a minimum, and something to build on".

"In many cases, businesses are incredibly sympathetic and very supportive of parents who have been bereaved, but what we are saying is, this is the statutory minimum and we would hope and encourage them to offer more than that," she said.

Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said Labour had long-supported the proposal and welcomed its announcement.

"As set out in our Workers' Rights Manifesto, Labour is calling for bereavement leave for those who have lost a close family member," she said.