While employers are generally clued up about an employee’s rights for paid annual leave, there is often much less clarity around when an employee can take unpaid leave.

There are actually a number of instances when an employee might want to take time off unpaid. The reasons vary, but commonly include caring responsibilities and career breaks.

So, is an employee entitled to take unpaid leave or not? Let’s take a look at the law and why employers might want to consider granting unpaid leave, even when there is no legal requirement.

The law around unpaid leave

There is very little in law around unpaid leave. In the most part, unpaid leave comes down to employer discretion. Perhaps the most utilised legislation around this area is transcribed in the Employment Rights Act 1996 which entitles eligible employees to a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off to care for a dependent. Unfortunately, ‘reasonable’ isn’t defined in statute, so it generally gets squeezed to a mere day or two to deal with an emergency.

Legislation in fact does very little to support employees to take unpaid time away from work. Having said that, legislative changes in recent years have started to support a more tolerant approach in the form of parental leave and shared parental leave.

What is parental leave?

Eligible employees are able to take unpaid parental leave to look after a child’s welfare. According to Government guidelines, parents can take leave to:

  • spend more time with their children
  • look at new schools
  • settle children into new childcare arrangements
  • spend more time with family, such as visiting grandparents

Parental leave is unpaid and entitles eligible working parents to take up to 18 weeks’ leave for each child, or adopted child, up until they reach the age of 18. Each parent is limited to 4 weeks in each year for each child, and leave must be taken in full weeks, rather than individual days.

It is important to note that parental leave applies to each child not an individual’s job, and any parental leave already taken is carried across to a new employer (i.e. if an employee has used 10 weeks of parental leave with a previous employer, they can only have 8 weeks with their new employer once they are eligible). 

You can learn more about parental rights at work by downloading our useful free guide.

What is shared parental leave?

Shared parental leave enables eligible employees to choose how they share their time off work after their child is born (or after they have adopted a child). This leave gives parents flexibility on how they share the caring responsibilities for their child. Eligible parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay and can be off work together or stagger leave to ensure one of them is at home with their baby in the infant’s first year.

For more information on shared parental leave, see the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service’s (ACAS) guide here.

Other circumstances for unpaid leave

There are a variety of reasons employees may need to take time off work without pay, and this will in most circumstances come down to the discretion of the employer. There is no automatic right for employees to have time off for doctor, dentist or hospital appointments, or to care for non-dependents. However, many employers will have some rules about this in their employment contracts.

Some employers who are keen to grow a good business culture are offering employees unpaid time off for sabbaticals to take a career break, or to embark on an adventure, travel or do voluntary work.

Business culture, flexible working and unpaid leave

Flexibility at work is becoming much more acceptable. Advances in technology have led to the global economy being switched on 24/7 and the traditional 9-5 working day is almost certainly coming to an end. According to a recent BBC report, just 6 per cent of people in the UK work from 9am to 5pm.

However, while employees in the UK have a right to request flexible working after 26 weeks of employment, uptake of flexible working is still low. It is up to businesses to promote flexible working options. A YouGov study found that flexibility is important to people and those that worked flexibly said it improved their motivation and loyalty.

Employee wellbeing is becoming an increasingly important aspect of business culture. As a result, unpaid leave is making its way onto the corporate agenda.

The sandwich generation (caring for children and ageing parents) are finding their schedules busier than ever. As a result, employees need a bigger say in the structure of their working day and around the rules about when they can take time off.

Work-life balance is important to employees, but it’s equally important for business productivity. Additional Leave Purchase Schemes are also becoming more popular and give employees the option to purchase additional holiday days.

Balanced employees suffer less from stress, are more productive and are more motivated. Businesses that encourage a good work-life balance also benefit from better staff retention and in attracting new talent.

There is increasing evidence to show that employees with a better work-life balance are more motivated, more productive and better employees.

Breathe parental rights guide