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Andrew Arkley|March 16, 2023

Unpaid Leave In The UK: Everything You Need To Know

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If you are an employee in the UK, you may be wondering what your rights are when it comes to unpaid leave. 

We will answer the question, ‘What is unpaid leave?’, discuss who is eligible for it, how much leave one is entitled to, and what steps are taken to request it.

We will also provide some tips on how to manage your finances during this period.

Read on to find out how this subject applies to you in your workplace.

What is unpaid leave?

This is a period of time that an employee spends outside of work without pay, while retaining their employment status. 

It differs from sick leave in that employees are entitled to a certain amount of paid sick leave. 

The same goes for maternity and paternity leave. There are several kinds of paid leave available to workers.

In contrast, with unpaid leave, the employer has no legal right to pay during the this period.

Types include:

  • Unpaid parental leave
  • A career break / sabbatical
  • Compassionate leave
  • Emergency situations
  • Unpaid holiday

Note that some types of employee leave can be paid or unpaid, depending on the contract or agreement between employer and employee. 

Compassionate leave, parental leave and taking a career break are examples of this. 

Who is entitled to unpaid leave?

Under UK law, employees are entitled to unpaid leave in certain circumstances. This could include sabbatical breaks, holiday and other types of absences. 

However, there are specific rules and regulations that govern how much unpaid leave an employee can take and what their rights are during this period.

Employees who have worked with the same employer for more than two years are entitled to up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave. 

This can be taken in chunks of no less than one week or all at once.

Employee contracts

Employee contracts vary regarding unpaid leave time allocated to, for example, unpaid holidays, parental responsibility, medical appointments etc. 

Most employers will consider an employee’s request in context and grant reasonable time to the employee according to their needs.

If you are unsure, consult the government resources linked below and review your employment contract or employee handbook.

The employment contract will contain relevant information related specifically to your position, but remember that UK employees are entitled to unpaid leave in certain circumstances according to the law.

Public duties

Sometimes, an unpaid absence is necessitated by the law, when one’s presence is required for jury service. 

However, accommodations can be made; a change of date for your jury service can be requested, or your employer may need you for that period. 

Jury service accommodations are considered on a case-by-case basis.

If one is called up for jury duty, this time is considered unpaid leave. However, you can claim money back to compensate for lost earnings.

Unpaid parental leave

One of the most important kinds of leave many employees will consider is parental leave.

Paid leave for new mothers and fathers is generally available in the UK. Beyond that, parental leave is not paid. 

You are entitled to 18 weeks’ unpaid parental leave for each child, with a maximum of 4 weeks to be used in a given year. 

Eligible parents may pursue unpaid parental leave to, for example, organise childcare or spend time with family members. 

Taking unpaid parental absence does not affect employment rights.

How to request unpaid leave

In order to take leave, eligible employees must make a written request to their employer. 

The request should include details of why the leave is being requested and for how long it will be taken. 

Employers must respond to the request as soon as possible but can only reject requests in specific circumstances, such as if it would cause substantial harm to the business or put other employees’ safety at risk. 

Should an employer refuse, consider the situation and whether they are justified in their decision.

Remember, an employee’s rights should be exercised, as that’s what they are there for. Unpaid and paid leave should be considered as and when they benefit you. 

UK citizens have a statutory right to this and various kinds of paid leave. For more information, see the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Reasons for leave

Before making a request, consider your reasons. 

For some cases, paid time off may be more suitable. 

Also, take note of any previous absences or leave requests made during the calendar year or period of employment.

There are special cases that the employer will take into account when considering such a request, such as compassionate leave, maternity leave and family emergencies, or whether performing public duties is expected of the employee.

Managing your finances

Employees who take unpaid leave may be concerned about how they will manage their finances during their absence. 

There are some financial support options available, such as Universal Credit or Statutory Sick Pay

Employees should speak to their employer or the relevant government department for more information about what support is available during the leave period.

It is important to note that employers cannot discriminate against employees who take such leave. 

This includes not allowing them to return to their job after the leave period has ended.

Key takeaways:

So there you have it – everything you need to know. 

Knowing your rights and understanding how to manage your finances during this period is essential for any employee.

Key Takeaways:

  • Employees in the UK are eligible for up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave if they have been with their employer for more than two years
  • To take it, employees must make a written request to their employer
  • There are some financial support options available for employees who take unpaid leave
  • Employers cannot discriminate against employees who take unpaid leave

We hope this blog post has provided you with all the information you need to know, whether for medical reasons, maternity/paternity leave, public duties or just a holiday. 

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