Sadly, the question of whether someone should be allowed time off work to grieve following the death of a pet seems to be a divisive one.
People are often afraid to ask for much-needed time off because they’re worried that their colleagues won’t understand the depth of their bereavement. Many non-animal lovers or people who don’t have pets may struggle to be sympathetic, but that doesn’t take away from the reality of your loss.
Those of us who have lost a beloved pet understand that the grief can be as distressing and life-changing as the loss of a human companion.
That isn’t something you can file away in your mind and get straight back to work as usual.
So where does the law stand on pet bereavement leave?
Time off for dependants
Employees in the UK are entitled to take time off for dependants, including time for emergencies and unforeseen circumstances. A dependant could be a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who depends on you for care.
Some employers will count pets in this category – after all, your pets are dependent on you to meet their needs. Unfortunately, this provision isn’t written into any legislation. It will depend on the policies and attitudes of individual employers and/or organisations.
Taking time off for dependants would usually apply to a situation where your pet is still living but needs emergency care that you couldn’t have foreseen.
If your employer doesn’t view your living pets as dependants but they are very unwell or need emergency care, you may be allowed to take some ‘compassionate leave’ from work.
Whether this is paid or unpaid leave will depend on the terms of your contract and your employer’s policy towards compassionate leave.
Interestingly, according to research by Petplan, one in 20 people now take time off to settle in new pets at home and say that their employers are understanding of the need for what the media dubs ‘paw-ternity’ leave.
Sadly, this understanding doesn’t always extend to end of life care for our pets or the subsequent grief that can turn our world upside down.
Currently (March 2018), there is no legal obligation for UK employers to provide compassionate or bereavement leave as standard, paid or otherwise, even in the case of the death of a human family member or close friend.
The Employment Rights Act 1996 gives employees the right to take time off to deal with an emergency situation, including the death of the dependant, but it doesn’t make provisions for after the death, including time that can be taken to grieve.
An increasing number of employers are choosing to add terms for bereavement leave to employee contracts but it’s still a grey area, even more so when it’s a pet that has died.
Many employers feel that if pets were included in the terms for time off for dependants, compassionate leave or bereavement leave, it would be open to abuse or lead to too many pet-related absences.
What can you do if you need time off work for a pet bereavement?
We really mustn’t underestimate the impact of pet bereavement. Some stats suggest that a third of pet carers report grieving for at least six months after the loss of their companion. In the beginning, working may simply be impossible.
The best advice is to talk to your employer about your individual circumstances as soon as you can if you feel they will be receptive. You might want to point out that you will be distracted and not as productive as usual and that you need some time to grieve.
Many employers will be willing to offer one or two days’ compassionate leave. Others may be more sympathetic, some less.
Many people choose not to disclose their circumstances and opt to take paid holiday leave or sick leave instead. This is an option you might want to consider if you feel that your employer or colleagues will not understand your loss.
Gradually, attitudes towards pet bereavement are changing. In the US, at least three national companies now allow staff to take compassionate leave following the death of a pet. Hopefully, more will follow suit throughout the world.
In the meantime, it’s worth reviewing your contract, talking to your manager or HR department, and drawing on the support around you at this sad time.
If you are struggling following the death of a pet, you might find it helpful to talk to a pet bereavement counsellor or seek support through The Ralph Site Facebook group where people will be sympathetic to your feelings.
Above all, do know that you’re not alone.
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support