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Can an Employee Take Unpaid Leave?

23 August 2019 7 min read

can an employee take unpaid leave

Unpaid Leave and the UK Law

The problem is that there isn’t much in UK law about unpaid leave. The UK law is so limited that they only really cover one scenario in which an employer might want to grant it at their discretion.

UK law is very clear indeed when it comes to paid leave. Almost all UK workers get 5.6 weeks of paid leave a year. For employees who work regular full-time hours, this usually extends to 28 days of paid leave each year. You can learn more about the UK law surrounding entitlement rights here.

The law is the same for those who work zero-hours contracts, and for those who work part-time or irregular hours. The only difficulty is in calculating just how much leave each employee gets.

Why Would Employees Want to Take Unpaid Leave?

Why would an employee want to take time off without pay, when they already have sick leave, statutory leave, and other types of leave to choose from?

The main reason is to meet their caring needs. Maternity leave and paternity leave let employees take paid time off throughout the first year of their child’s life. But their caring commitments don’t stop once the child gets older.

So when an employee needs to take time off to meet certain caring needs, what choice do they have? They could use up some of their statutory leave. But this sort of leave should be reserved for holidays, for the rest your employees need to let off steam and avoid stress.

When they have no legal entitlement to leave, and when they (understandably) don’t want to eat into their holiday allowance, an employee might instead prefer to take unpaid leave.

1. Parental Reasons

UK law makes it clear that employees may take time off unpaid in these circumstances. It’s called Unpaid Parental Leave, and you’ll find several guidelines on the government’s website.

Interestingly, the law specifies that employees may take unpaid parental leave even if they’re not facing an emergency, or meeting any caring needs. They can take unpaid parental leave if they simply wish to spend more time with their children or to spend more time with their wider family. Taking the kids to visit grandma might be an example of the latter.

All employment rights are still valid during any period of parental leave without pay. These include the right to pay, holiday entitlement, and the right to return to their job.

Employees are entitled to 18 weeks of unpaid parental leave for each child and adopted child, up to their 18th birthday. Legally, they’re only entitled to four weeks a year for each child. But if you want to let them take more, you can.

This unpaid leave cannot be taken as individual days scattered throughout the year. It must be taken in whole-week chunks. In this case, “a week” is the same as the length of time an employee normally works over seven days. But again, you can let them take the odd day off here and there if you wish. The law also specifies that employees can take individual days of unpaid leave if their child is disabled.

Employees don’t have to take all of their entitled unpaid leave at once. Also, unpaid parental leave applies to each child an employee has. It’s separate from their job, which means that an employee can carry over unpaid parental leave allowance from a previous job.

The rules for eligibility are pretty simple:

  • The child must be under 18.
  • Contractors and self-employed workers are not eligible.
  • The employee must have been in the company for more than a year.
  • Foster parents are not eligible unless they’ve secured parental responsibility through the courts.
  • The employee must be the named parent on the child’s birth or adoption certificate.

You can ask for proof if you think it’s necessary, and if it’s appropriate. Also, even if an employee isn’t legally entitled to unpaid parental leave, you can still let them take it.

For example, perhaps one of your employees is a foster parent, and they want to take some unpaid leave to help their foster child settle in. Technically they might not be eligible for it. But this is a critical and sensitive period for both the employee and the child. So as a benevolent employer who values wellbeing, why wouldn’t you let them take the time they need?

21 days before their intended start date is how much notice an employee must give before they take unpaid parental leave?

When giving you notice, employees must confirm the start and the end date of their unpaid parental leave. This doesn’t have to be in writing, but you have every right to request it in writing if you need it for your records.

Because employees must give you three weeks’ notice before they take their unplanned leave, you should have no difficulty making arrangements to ensure their leave doesn’t cause much disruption to your business. But if you find that their leave would cause serious disruption, then you have grounds to delay their leave.

You must explain this to the employee within seven days of their original request, though. Your explanation must be in writing, and you must suggest a new start date for their unpaid parental leave within six months of the requested start date. Finally, if you find you need to delay an employee’s unpaid leave, you cannot change the duration of the leave when rescheduling it.

2. Caring for dependants

Caring for children is a big one. But with our aging population, many employees now have to take care of older relatives too. Unpaid leave might be their best option should they ever need to meet any care needs at short notice.

Employees might also want to take leave without pay to take care of non-dependants, such as close friends or other family members. Or maybe they’ll have to take care of their own needs. They might have to make a dentist appointment, for example. Employees have no legal rights here so most decisions are entirely up to you.

What’s the alternative? Do you prevent an employee from attending to a personal or family emergency? How do you think that’s going to look to the employee? They might start to resent you. And once they’ve started to resent you, they might stop working so hard. They might start looking for a job that does let them attend to such pressing concerns.

So long as the absence won’t disrupt your business, why not let employees take all the time they need to manage their lives outside of work? This sort of attitude is the hallmark of positive and supportive organisational culture. It shows that you value and respect and trust your employees, so in its way, it helps to champion employee wellbeing.

How to Manage Unpaid Leave in Your Business

Because there’s very little in UK law governing this issue, you’ll have to define your policies and procedures. That way, there’ll be no room for doubt, and everyone will know where they stand.

So take the time to write your absence management policy, and include it in all employee contracts and staff handbooks. In your policy, outline the circumstances in which employees can take unpaid leave. Set clear rules for the number of leave employees can take. Define the amount of notice they’ll have to give, and the sort of arrangements they’ll have to make to minimize disruption.

Need a hand putting your policy together? Why not base it on the government’s guidelines for unpaid parental leave?

Ultimately, though, taking leave without pay is just like any other kind of absence. You can’t eliminate it, but if you manage it correctly, it won’t cause you any problems.

Our world-famous absence management software will help you manage unpaid leave in your business. Employees can make a leave request from any device, and you can approve it or deny it in a matter of seconds. You can set minimum staffing levels, so you’ll automatically get an alert should the leave request pose any problems for your business.

absence risk profile

Katrina Bennett People Director at edays
August 23, 2019

Katrina is edays' own People Director with significant UK and international experience in delivering people strategy and value-adding HR solutions across a range of organisations and sectors (including Arriva, Boots, Rolls Royce, the utility and charity sectors). Katrina has over 20 years of experience in Human Resources and is CIPD qualified.