HR · 11 October 2018

When can an employee take unpaid leave?

unpaid leave
It is important that rules around unpaid leave are made clear to employees to avoid any confusion on entitlement
Writing for Business Advice, Kate Palmer, associate director at Peninsula HR, helps employers understand when an employee can take unpaid leave and explains what the law says on such matters.

Many employers will be aware of a worker’s annual entitlement to paid annual leave, however, fewer will be aware of an individual’s ability to take a periods of unpaid leave. There are in fact a variety of instances where individuals can take unpaid leave, some of which are transcribed in law, whilst others are down to the employer’s discretion.

Perhaps the best known and most utilised form of unpaid leave is time off for dependants. This is transcribed in the Employment Rights Act 1996 and entitles eligible employees to a “reasonable” amount of time off to care for a dependant, which will typically be a child, relative or other individual who an employee provides care to.

What is considered “reasonable” is not defined in legislation, however, in reality, this is usually no more than two working days per instance and is designed to simply allow the employee the freedom to deal with an emergency situation involving a dependant.

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Another form of unpaid leave protected by legislation is the right to parental leave, which is designed to give employees the ability to take time off to care for their child. This is available to parents who have a child under the age of 18 and have at least one year’s continuous service with their current employer.

Eligible individuals are entitled to 18 weeks of unpaid parental leave, limited to a maximum of four weeks per year under the default scheme, for each child they have under the age limit.

Unlike time off for dependants, employers have a limited ability to postpone requests for this leave to a more suitable time, providing there is a valid business reason for doing so.

Although it is not a statutory requirement, employers can choose to offer staff the opportunity to take a period of compassionate leave, should they suffer a bereavement or experience some other particularly distressing episode in their personal life. Whilst some employers do in fact pay staff during this time, others refrain from this practice given that there is no legal requirement for them to do so, during this extended period of leave.



Kate Palmer CIPD is the head of advisory at law firm Peninsula and is a member of its senior leadership team. She joined in 2009 having held a senior HR manager's role in another large company. With a specialist background in facilities management in the NHS, Kate offers a wealth of employment law experience. She's an expert negotiator - one notable case was with the NHS's trade unions over terms and conditions in the Agenda for Change pay system.

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