Unpaid Leave in the UK: Balancing Employee Needs and Business Viability

Unpaid leave

When work meets life events, it can be challenging to juggle both. Employees today face many occasions where taking time off for personal reasons is inevitable – yet doing so without pay does not have to be.

The job market remains vulnerable and uncertain in the post-COVID world. More UK employers are introducing measures to protect their staff and offer them support.

Unpaid leave is one such measure, a temporary change that gives employees financial security while allowing businesses to remain viable during difficult times.

Meticulously planned and strategically implemented, unpaid leave can significantly reduce costs without compromising recruitment targets or employee welfare.

But where do you start? From understanding which parties should be involved in the decision process to figuring out how long it should last, we've covered it in this blog post. Read on as we explore when, why and how unpaid leave could benefit your business and its people!

What is unpaid leave?

Unlike paid leave, unpaid leave is a type of absence from work in the United Kingdom, which can be voluntarily requested by an employee or mandated by an employer. Unpaid leave may come with specific rules and regulations that must be followed to ensure compliance with UK employment law.

The primary statutory entitlement to unpaid leave under the Employment Rights Act 1996 applies to employees and workers in all sectors on an indefinite contract or one lasting a year or more. Workers on shorter-term contracts may be eligible only if they have been employed for more than six months and less than a year.

Under the Act, employers must give employees the right to take a leave for personal reasons. The employer determines the amount of time allowed off without pay, but it must be at most 28 days in any given 12-month period.

It is essential that employers communicate to their workers what the policy and procedure are regarding taking leave and that they handle applications and requests fairly and consistently.

What are the reasons for unpaid leave in the UK?

There are various reasons an employee may take unpaid leave in the UK, and employers must understand the legal requirements and implications of this type of leave.

One of the most common reasons for unpaid leave in the UK is a vacation or personal time. This can include a career break, time off for travel, family emergency, or personal projects. Under Jury service, employees are entitled to a minimum of 28 days of paid annual leave, but they may take additional time off without pay.

Useful Read: Holiday Accrual: Understanding Employee Entitlements and Time Off

Another reason for unpaid leave in the UK is for medical or family reasons. This can include:

  • The birth or adoption of a child
  • To care for a sick or elderly family member;
  • To attend medical appointments.
  • For bereavement purposes( Bereavement leave).
  • To attend to a legal obligation such as Jury duty or magistrate duties
  • To take personal time off to cope with stress or depression.
  • Time off for a severe illness
  • Unpaid holiday
  • An emergency involving the dependents.

Under the law, employees are entitled to paid sick leave and parental leave, but they may take additional time off without pay.

Unpaid leave can also be taken for educational or training purposes. This can include time off to pursue a degree or professional development opportunity. While many employers are not legally required to grant this type of leave, they may choose to do so to invest in their employees' development.

Sometimes, an employee may take unpaid time due to a company downsizing or restructuring. This can include time off for layoffs or a reduction in hours. Employers are required to follow the employment contract and specific procedures when implementing layoffs, but they are not required to pay employees during this time.

In short, unpaid leave can be taken for various reasons in the UK. Employers must understand the legal requirements and implications of this type of leave.


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Other types of unpaid leave in the UK

In addition to bereavement leave, there are several types of unpaid leave that employees may be eligible for, including:

  1. Annual Leave: Employees are entitled to a minimum of 28 days of paid annual leave, but they may take additional time off without pay.

  2. Parental Leave: Employees are entitled to a certain amount of paid parental leave, but they may take additional time off without pay.

  3. Sick Leave: Employees are entitled to a certain amount of paid sick leave, but they may choose to take additional time off without pay.

  4. Career Break: Employees may request unpaid leave for a career break for a specific time, typically for personal or family reasons.

  5. Voluntary Unpaid Leave: This is an agreement between an employer and an employee to take time off without pay for a specific period.

  6. Time off for Study or Training: Employees may take time off for study or training without pay as long as it's not for their current job and the employer agrees.

  7. Sabbatical leave: Employees may take a sabbatical from work without pay for an agreed period.
  8. Compassionate care leave: Employees may take time off without pay to care for a seriously ill family member or partner.

  9. Unpaid Holidays: Employees may take unpaid holidays with prior agreement from their employer.

  10. Forced unpaid leave: Forced unpaid leave can be imposed on an employee in certain circumstances, such as during a period of redundancy or restructuring.

The bottom line

Unpaid leave is a statutory right for employees in the UK, allowing them to take time off for various reasons such as parental responsibility, study and training purposes, or a family emergency.

Employers have a legal obligation to consider an employee's request for unpaid leave and must provide a reasonable amount of time for the rest to take place.

However, the employer's discretion is still essential when balancing the needs of the employee with the demands of the business, such as customer demands. Self-employed individuals do not have the same statutory rights as employees, but career breaks or leave options are still available.

The child's welfare should always be considered when making decisions about unpaid leave. Local councillors and other support systems may assist in the case of a child's accident or the need for new childcare arrangements.

Many employers understand the importance of balancing work with family obligations and are willing to work with employees to find a beneficial solution for all parties involved.

Ultimately, the key to successfully navigating unpaid leave is clear communication and thoughtful consideration of the employee's employment status and specific circumstances.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Unpaid parental leave is unpaid leave that an employee can request to care for a child in their family.

    This can include time off to give birth, adopt a child or care for a sick or elderly family member. Under UK law, employees are entitled to 18 weeks of paid statutory maternity leave plus additional unpaid parental leave.

  • In most cases, an employer cannot require an employee to take unpaid leave. In the UK, employers must provide their employees with a minimum amount of paid annual, sick, and parental leave, as outlined in the Working Time Regulations.

    However, an employer can request an employee to take unpaid leave, and the employee can accept or refuse this request.

    In some circumstances, an employer may require an employee to take unpaid leave due to a company downsizing or restructuring. This can include layoffs or a reduction in hours. In this case, the employer must follow specific procedures, such as consulting with employees and providing notice, but they are not required to pay employees during this time.

    It's important to note that an employer should always consider the impact of unpaid leave on the employee and their family before requesting or requiring unpaid leave.

    An employee forced to take unpaid leave may face financial difficulties and consider it discrimination. Employers should also be aware of their obligations under the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits discrimination based on various protected characteristics, including age, disability, sex, and pregnancy.

  • Unpaid leave is an essential issue in the UK, and there are specific laws that employers must adhere to when granting unpaid leave.

    The Employment Rights Act 1996 states that employees have a right to take reasonable unpaid leave for specified reasons, such as caring for dependents or attending medical appointments.

    Employers must also ensure that any unpaid absences do not lead to discrimination against their employees based on sex, race, disability, or any other protected characteristic. It is, therefore, important for employers to be aware of their legal obligations when it comes to granting unpaid leave.

  • The amount of unpaid leave employers can grant their employees depends on the individual situation. Still, generally speaking, most employers are required to provide a minimum of one week's notice for any planned absence.

    In addition, employees can take up to four weeks of unpaid leave each year for family and medical reasons. This includes parental or compassionate leave, which can be taken when a family member is ill or dies.

    However, the amount of unpaid leave that employers can provide goes beyond these basic requirements. Some organizations may have policies in the handbook which outline additional rights and entitlements for employees to take time off without pay. This could include time off for school events, bereavement leave, or caring for a partner or elderly relative.

  • The answer to this question depends mainly on the individual situation. Generally, employers cannot force their employees to take unpaid leave without their consent.

    However, in some cases, it may be necessary or beneficial for an employer to ask employees to take time off without pay, such as during periods of economic downturns when layoffs are unavoidable.

  • In the UK, parents are legally entitled to take up to 18 weeks of unpaid family leave per year. This includes parental leave and additional paternity or adoption leave. Parents can also take compassionate leave in certain circumstances, such as if their child is seriously ill.

  • Under the Shared Parental Leave (SPL) regulations, parents of babies born or placed for adoption on or after 5 April 2015 are eligible to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay. The SPL is designed to give parents more flexibility when taking time off work, allowing them to take the exit separately or simultaneously.

  • Typically, annual leave does not accrue while an employee is on unpaid leave. However, employers may allow their employees to take paid or unpaid holiday leave during their period of absence. Employers must clarify this in the employee handbook before reaching any agreement.

  • According to the Employment Rights Act 1996, employees in the UK are legally entitled to take up to four weeks of unpaid leave each year.

    This is usually referred to as 'parental leave' and applies if you have a child aged 18 or younger living with you or are expecting a baby.

    Employees also have the legal right to take unpaid leave for specific purposes, such as attending a funeral or looking after a sick relative.

    Under the UK's statutory maternity, paternity, and adoption leave rules, some employees may be entitled to more than four weeks of unpaid leave.

  • Employees on unpaid leave are legally entitled to their usual terms and conditions of employment, including benefits such as annual leave, sick pay, and pension contributions.

    They also have the right to return to their job at the end of their leave period in the same or equivalent role without detriment to their working conditions.

    If a job is no longer available, employers must make reasonable efforts to find the employee an alternative role.

  • No. Unless there is a contractual arrangement between the employer and employee, forcing an employee to take unpaid leave would constitute constructive dismissal under UK law. Employers should discuss any requests for unpaid leave with employees before taking action.

  • Unpaid bereavement leave, also known as compassionate leave, is time off work granted by an employer to allow employees to attend funerals and arrange the affairs of those close to them who have recently died.

    In the United Kingdom, employers are not legally required to offer this type of leave, but many do it out of respect for their employees.

    Bereavement leave is usually taken in blocks of 1-5 days. It should be used for arranging funeral arrangements, attending the service or memorial, dealing with legal issues (for example, probate), making travel arrangements, notifying other family members, and sorting out the deceased's papers.

  • Yes, an employer can legally refuse a request for unpaid leave. However, they must provide a reasonable explanation as to why the rest has been denied.

    Employees who feel their leave has been unfairly refused should contact their employer in writing and explain their concerns. Employees may also wish to take legal advice if they are unsatisfied.

  • Employers are not obliged to pay workers for days taken as unpaid leave, so the employee's salary will usually be deducted accordingly.

    This is often done in one lump sum after the period of absence has been completed. For example, if an employee takes five days off work due to bereavement and their regular salary is £1000 per month, then their monthly salary would be calculated as £900.

Employee Regulations
Rinaily Bonifacio

Written by:

Rinaily Bonifacio

Rinaily is a renowned expert in the field of human resources with years of industry experience. With a passion for writing high-quality HR content, Rinaily brings a unique perspective to the challenges and opportunities of the modern workplace. As an experienced HR professional and content writer, She has contributed to leading publications in the field of HR.


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