Dependancy leave strategies every SME should know

17 min read  |   31 October, 2023   By Aimée Brougham-Chandler

A younger woman helps an elderly woman up a flight of stairs

Providing time off for dependants isn't just about meeting legal requirements - it's about creating a supportive work environment where employees can thrive both personally & professionally.  

In this blog, we'll delve into the ins & outs of managing time off for dependants in SMEs.

We’ll provide practical insights, HR guidelines & real-world solutions with tips from our expert HR Partner, Rebecca Woolmington, founder & Director of HRCentral. 


Skip to:

What is dependancy leave?

Who can be classed as a dependant?

Is time off for dependants paid or unpaid?

What situations aren't covered by dependancy leave?

Managing time off for dependants: key advice for SMEs

Supporting employees & handing difficult conversations

Rebecca's top 4 HR tips for managing time off for dependants


What is dependancy leave? 

Dependancy leave – also known as time off for dependants, or emergency family leave – is the time off employees can take from work to assist or care for their dependants, in case of an emergency. 

UK law allows the right to reasonable time off for dependants, in the event of any of the following:  

  • Dependants falling ill, becoming injured or assaulted 
  • To make arrangement for the provision of care 


What’s classed as emergency leave? 

Time off for dependants is designed to cover unforeseen events where a dependent needs assistance - this means it doesn’t cover things like planned medical appointments.

Although unexpected, the nature of the issue doesn’t always have to be sudden in order to qualify for dependancy leave. In the case of RBS v Harrison [2008], The Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled that ‘unexpected’ doesn’t have to mean sudden, but that if the disruption is sudden in terms of when the employee learns about it, that this is sufficient.  

There’s no minimum length of service requirement to be eligible for dependancy leave. 


Who can be classed as a dependant?  

Those who are classed as a dependant include –  

  • An employee’s spouse or partner 
  • Their child 
  • A parent 
  • Someone else who is regarded as part of the family and lives with an employee (but not tenants, boarders, lodgers or employees) 
  • Anyone else who is reliant on an employee in emergency situations 


Is time off for dependants paid or unpaid? 

There’s no legal provision to pay employees for time off for dependants, but this will depend on your company & whether any alternative policies are in place. 

We asked our HR Partner, Rebecca Woolmington of HRCentral, for more detail around paying employees for dependancy leave. 

“Legally, [this leave] is unpaid, but some companies will pay and enhance this leave, depending on the situation. Again, this should be detailed in your employee handbook or within a relevant policy – e.g. in the event of [a specific] emergency, the business will pay for the first 3 or 4 days off.

Ultimately, it comes down to trust, and ensuring the same rules for everybody. You might want to specify that discretionary payments may be made, depending on the circumstances at the time.” 

What situations aren’t covered by dependancy leave? 

Lodgers, tenants & live-in employees don’t qualify as dependants 

Situations that don’t meet the requirements for dependancy leave: 

  • Taking dependants to planned medical appointments  
  • The illness of a pet 
  • Personal issues such as relationship problems 
  • A water leak or flood at home

Rebecca clarifies an important point around the type of situations that would qualify for time off. “It’s important to note that things like pre-planned hospital appointments wouldn’t be covered – but if a childminder fails to turn up, for example, or another unexpected incident occurs in relation to someone you have a caring responsibility for, then dependancy leave would cover this.” 

Managing time off for dependants: key advice for SMEs 

In this section, we’ll look further at when time off for dependants can be taken, the legal parameters around this type of leave, along with how SMEs can support their employees (and their managers).  


How much time off for dependants can employees take?  

We wanted to know if there’s a legal maximum on the amount of time employees can take off in emergencies. Rebecca advised that this is a grey area that isn’t set out specifically in UK law.  

“Employees should be making reasonable efforts to minimise their time off as much as they can in these types of scenarios – depending on the individual, and the circumstances. For example, if your childcare falls through and you don’t have familial support nearby, you won’t be able to let your 4-year old fend for themselves whilst you go to work.

Employers need to allow an element of flexibility, and remember that we’re all human, and these things happen sometimes. The more accommodating an employer is, the more they will earn the trust of the employee - obviously this works both ways. 

My advice to SMEs would be to record the conversations you’re having – I find the ‘notes’ section within Breathe is really useful for things like this.” 

What’s classed as a reasonable period for time off? 

Given that there’s no specific amount of time set by the government, we wanted to know what’s a reasonable amount of time off (for any small businesses that might also be grappling with this grey area).  

Rebecca notes that this really depends on the business, and urges SMEs to consider these cases on an individual basis. 

“This really depends – for example, if you’ve got a team of 3 people, then you may not always be able to afford to be generous with leave, to the extent that you might like to. 

On the other hand, if someone is experiencing a childcare emergency, then it’s not really within HR’s gift to explicitly say, ‘you’ve got 3 days to sort out childcare’. Essentially, what it comes down to is good communication – talk to the individual to work out what they might need in terms of time off, along with any additional support they might need. This can also serve as a bit of a reminder of their responsibilities to the business (not that most employees would forget). Managers should stay involved & informed with updates, along with ensuring adequate provisions to cover workload from a business continuity perspective.” 


How can SMEs ensure that employees taking time off feel supported and valued through their absence? 

Delicate situations call for delicate handling – and this is sometimes easier said than done, if you’ve not been in the situation before as a small business, or if you’re worried about maintaining business as usual. But it’s essential to remember that your employee is a human with a whole life outside of work – and people that need them.  

With this in mind, Rebecca shares her key advice for managing employee relationships when dealing with time off for dependants: 

“Keep in mind that this type of emergency leave can often be for catastrophic reasons for the employee – handling the whole situation with sensitivity & care is crucial.  

As a business or a manager, you can do irreparable damage to the employee relationship by not treating someone properly in these situations – this could be a reason that employees leave a business, if they feel a difficult scenario has been handled indelicately or that their employer hasn’t been supportive.” 

Handing difficult conversations around emergency leave 

Emergency situations that require last-minute time off can be stressful for employees, and difficult for small businesses to manage – especially those that feel the pinch of being a team member down at short notice.  

This could potentially lead to some tricky conversations – so we asked Rebecca for her thoughts on how HR can support line managers dealing with these situations.  

“Handling difficult conversations can be hard for those without experience – from an HR perspective, we’re used to this, but for most managers, this may be difficult, and most often haven’t had any training. HR can sometimes support by offering scripts for line managers to structure these conversations, or attending meetings to support both parties."

It might sound obvious, but Rebecca also flags the importance of letting managers know that they are allowed to check in with their team members, too.  

For more information on navigating difficult conversations, read our manager’s guide to delivering effective feedback. 


Can employers ask for proof in emergency situations, where leave for dependants is needed? 

Time off for dependants doesn’t require proof or evidence to be given to the employer – nor does notice of it need to be given in writing (similar to the Carer’s Leave Act, which has a similar clause).  

Rebecca highlights that the nature of emergency leave doesn’t lend itself to written notice, either.  

“Given the nature of this leave and that it’s designed to cover emergencies, it might often be a phone call or an employee verbally letting their manager know of the situation.  

Rather than asking for evidence, during these tricky-to-navigate scenarios, managers & businesses just need to make sure they’re communicating with their staff and understanding what their needs are. You know your employees – if you suspect a problem or abuse of the policy, then introduce check-ins (like return-to-work conversations) to make sure everything’s ok & to chat things through.  

In another scenario, where time off for dependants is happening regularly (e.g. unreliable childcare that keeps causing problems) then you might want to position from a supportive angle – for example, ask your employee if you/the business can help them to find alternative childcare providers. Make sure to highlight this from a place of concern, not in a negative way.” 


Rebecca’s top 4 HR tips for SMEs on managing leave for dependants:  

  1. Make sure you’ve clearly classified what dependants leave is for, whether or not you reserve the right to pay this leave at your discretion, and the reporting structure around it. Essentially, make it clear to everyone what the parameters for time off for dependents looks like within your SME (to the extent that you can do this).  

  2. Provide training for your line managers around how to manage sensitive issues and difficult conversations – this is invaluable.  

  3. Communicate with your employees who require this time off, and make sure they feel supported.  

  4. Ensure you treat everyone with the same rules & respect.  


Can employers refuse time off for dependants? 

Are there cases where employers could refuse dependancy leave? Rebecca advises that the case is mostly not.  

“The amount of time off set by legislation is also very vague. I’d advise SMEs to set out what you think is reasonable in your employee handbook – as far as you can, without being overly prescriptive.  

State that the leave is designed to support during emergencies only and isn’t applicable if you knew about the occasion beforehand and it was preventable with other types of leave, or flexible working (e.g. medical appointments).” 

Rebecca also advises SMEs to ensure consistency across the board – what applies to one employee, also needs to apply to everyone. “Make sure you’re noting down what is permitted, or some guidelines as to what is reasonable for within your business, as a reference point.  

Problems can arise when you allow one employee time off for dependents, but not another – which is why it’s so important to be consistent, as you can’t unpick this once it’s done, and people talk.” 


Considering other types of leave  

Instead of time off for dependents, employers may offer different leave types such as compassionate leave, or unpaid leave for special cases.   

Different policy types can be useful to cover different situations - such as occasions where the person requiring help isn’t defined as a dependent. For example, compassionate leave may be paid, whereas time off for dependants might not be.  

Holiday may also be the right option if the employee wishes to take annual leave. The right leave type depends on what your SME offers, and the individual’s circumstances.  

The most important thing is to ensure you’re supporting employees through these difficult, emergency situations as best you can – maintaining communication & fostering healthy working relationships going forward. After all – your team won’t forget how you respond as an employer when times are tough.  

Breathe’s holiday planner & leave booking system allows you to easily record holiday as well as other types of leave. Find out more or take out a free trial today.  

Rebecca Woolmington is the founder & Director of HRCentral, who are HR Partners of Breathe. 


Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An IDM-certified Digital Copywriter as of February 2023, Aimée is Breathe's Content Assistant. With a passion for guiding readers to solutions for their HR woes, she enjoys delving into & demystifying all things HR: From employee performance to health and wellbeing, leave to company culture & much more.

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