17 Aug 2022

The Employer’s Guide to unpaid leave in the UK

UK Employment Law is very clear when it comes to paid leave. However, when looking at unpaid leave it’s far less clear cut. It’s no wonder that unpaid leave can be a topic that causes confusion for many UK employers.

Blue calendar showing different unpaid leave types on pink background

With certain types of unpaid leave that are protected by law, and others left entirely to the employer’s discretion, it can be difficult to understand what you need to know.

This UK Employer’s Guide to Unpaid Leave breaks everything down for you. We deep-dive into all the main types of unpaid leave you should know about and how best to manage time off work for both you and your employees.

What is unpaid leave?

Unpaid leave is where employees take time off work without receiving a wage. This can be for a variety of reasons such as dealing with an emergency, fulfilling public duties, or pursuing further education relevant to their job.

Why unpaid leave is important

Offering certain types of unpaid leave is an essential part of creating a flexible and accommodating work environment that outwardly supports and values its workers’ wellbeing and work-life balance.

Unpaid leave is a crucial part of allowing employees to deal with unexpected emergencies, carve time out for their children, and fulfil public duties.

Additionally, proactively encouraging employees to embark on further training or education will not only result in workers that feel respected and supported to grow, but ultimately, a better skilled workforce.

All in all, unpaid leave caters to a wide-range of circumstances, some protected by law and others left to the discretion of employers themselves. Creating a fair and flexible unpaid leave policy can be seen as an effective way to improve employee experience and their perception of the type of workplace culture you’re trying to create.

Are UK workers entitled to unpaid leave?

Here, it’s important to make a distinction between discretionary unpaid leave and statutory unpaid leave. UK workers are entitled to certain types of unpaid leave: where they are fulfilling a public duty such as jury service or taking leave to look after their children. Beyond these two types, it is up to the employer’s discretion whether they offer additional unpaid leave to their workforce.

Legally protected types of unpaid leave

As stipulated by the Employment Rights Act 1996, employers must allow their workers unpaid time off for the following absences.

Unpaid parental leave

Eligible workers are entitled to unpaid parental leave in order to take care of their children, look at prospective schools, organise and manage childcare arrangements. Parents are entitled to a maximum of 18 weeks of parental leave up until their child’s 18th birthday, with a limit of 4 weeks for every child. Although employers have the discretion to give their employees more unpaid parental leave if they want.

Employees must take their unpaid parental leave in week-long periods. It’s not possible to take unpaid parental leave on individual days. Parental leave is tracked according to the child not their parent’s job, therefore their allowance carries over even if they change jobs.

Jury service

It is possible to ask an employee to delay their jury service if you feel their absence will be damaging to your business. Note, however, that it is only possible to delay jury service once within 12 months and your employee will be required to state their availability when applying for the delay.

Employers are not required to pay their workers whilst they are on jury service, but some choose to. If you choose not to pay your employees, they have the ability to claim a ‘loss of earnings’ allowance from the court. Again, some employers choose to supplement their employees’ ‘loss of earnings’ allowance.

Magistrate duty

Magistrates are required to be in court for a minimum of 13 full or 26 half days every year. They should receive their schedule in advance which will give you the time to plan ahead of time.

Again, it is not legally required that you pay your employees whilst they are on leave for magistrates duty, but many employers choose to anyway. As with jury service, employees who are not paid by their employers for their magistrates duties can claim a ‘loss of earnings’ allowance.

Dependent’s leave

Finally, all employees have the right to take time off work when faced with an emergency that involves a dependent of theirs. A dependent is defined by the government as a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent or any other person that depends on them for care.

There is no set allowance for this kind of leave, because a reasonable time is agreed according to the situation at hand. There are no limits on the number of times that a person can take emergency leave, but employers do have the right to talk to their workers if they feel the amount of time they’ve taken off work is impacting their capacity to work. Additionally, employers are not obliged to pay their workers for emergency leave.

It’s important to note that this type of leave only applies to unforeseen emergencies, situations in which the employee had advance knowledge do not count.

Compassionate leave

Some employers choose to offer compassionate leave instead of dependent’s leave. This can also be unpaid or paid, depending on the employer.

Laying off and short-time working

If there is insufficient amounts of work available for all your employees, you are entitled to ask them to stay at home, take unpaid leave, or shorten their hours. There is technically no limit for how long an employer can lay off their employees for, but they will be entitled to apply for redundancy if they are laid off for 4 weeks in a row.

It’s important to note that if you want to give yourself the ability to lay-off your employees without paying them, you need to stipulate this in your employment contract.

Discretionary types of unpaid leave

Beyond the types of unpaid leave outlined above, there are several types of leave that are completely discretionary. This means the employer can decide whether or not to offer this type of leave as part of their employment package.

Unpaid leave for training and study

Employees have the right to request time off work in order to undertake certain training or study. They must show that their desired course of study will actively relate to and improve their contribution to your workplace, but you do not have to agree to let them take the time off.

Time off for medical appointments

There is no legal requirement for employers in the UK to offer their workers time off for doctor or dentist appointments.

Sabbatical Leave

Sabbatical leave is an entirely discretionary type of leave that allows employees to take an extended period off work. This is agreed by both the employer and employee and can be paid or unpaid, although generally employees do not get compensated during their sabbaticals.

Time off in lieu (TOIL)

TOIL, which stands for ‘Time off in lieu’, is a type of unpaid leave that employees that have worked overtime (exceeded their contracted hours) can take. This means that instead of being paid for their extra time at work, they are able to take time off in substitute.

How employers should manage unpaid leave

Here are a few tips on how you can effectively manage unpaid leave of employees.

Clear employment contracts

First and foremost, it is important to ensure that your employment contracts clearly outline your stance and policy on all the different types of unpaid leave that you offer. This includes statutory and discretionary unpaid leave. You should ensure to clearly stipulate in what circumstances your workers are entitled to take unpaid leave and how much notice you expect them to give you (where relevant). You should also make it clear how you want them to submit for unpaid leave.

Effective absence management software

Though you may be fully supportive of all types of unpaid leave on paper, managing it is another matter. That’s why opting for a modern HR software that takes care of absences for you is so important.

Zelt is a consolidated platform that brings together payroll, benefits, and leave management. Both you and your employees will have transparent and instant access to everything you need to know about applying for leave, taking it, and managing it.

You can see who is absent and when, manage leave requests, and more. For an employee, the ability to easily ask for time off and track their leave entitlement in one place makes for the sleek user-experience they deserve.

FAQs about unpaid leave

Do employees have the right to unpaid leave?

Employees in the UK have the right to certain types of unpaid leave including for jury or magistrate service, emergencies, and to take care of their children. Any other types of unpaid leave are discretionary, meaning it’s up to the employer.

Can employers reject requests for unpaid leave?

UK Employers are entitled to reject requests for certain types of unpaid leave. It is important to understand which types of unpaid leave are a legal entitlement and which are discretionary. For example, if an employee requests time off because they’ve been called to serve on a jury, an employer is only able to request that they delay their jury service, but they cannot outright reject their request for time off work.

Is unpaid leave legal in the UK?

Yes, it is. As we’ve seen some types of unpaid leave are enshrined in law, meaning they are a legal entitlement. The other types of discretionary unpaid leave must be correctly and robustly outlined in your employment contract which must be signed and agreed to by all your employees.