Skip to content

Unpaid Leave in the UK: Everything You Need to Know

5 min read

In the UK, unpaid leave is a flexible benefit that provides numerous advantages to employees and employers. This article gives a comprehensive overview of unpaid leave in the UK, including its definition, benefits, and answers to frequently asked questions.

payslip template

What is Unpaid Leave? 

Unpaid leave is a term used to describe a period of time that an employee takes off from work without receiving their regular salary or wages. It is a voluntary arrangement between the employer and the employee, allowing the latter to take time off for personal or other reasons. It is usually taken for personal reasons, such as family emergencies, health issues, travel, or other personal commitments. Unpaid leave can be requested by the employee, subject to the employer’s approval, and is often covered by specific policies or employment contracts.

Full-time employees are entitled to a minimum of 5.6 weeks of paid time off each year, known as statutory leave entitlement. Employees are also entitled to paid sick leave, maternity leave (up to 39 weeks), paternity leave (up to 2 weeks), compassionate leave and statutory holiday entitlement. Any other time off where employees are not entitled to statutory pay are known as unpaid leave. It is governed by the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Benefits of Unpaid Time Off

Offering unpaid leave has many benefits, including:

  1. Work-Life Balance: An employee entitled to unpaid leave can balance their personal and professional lives. It allows individuals to handle personal matters, attend to family needs, or pursue personal development opportunities without quitting their jobs. Employers demonstrate their commitment to work-life balance and employee well-being by providing this option.
  2. Career Break: Unpaid leave can be used for a career break, sabbatical, or extended period of time away from work. These are impossible with the limited amount of time paid leave provides. Employees may use this opportunity to explore new career paths, travel, engage in further education, or take a break from the routine. These breaks often result in personal growth, increased motivation, and enhanced productivity upon the employee’s return to work.
  3. Personal Development: Unpaid leave can drive personal development as it allows employees to engage in further education, attend training programmes, or pursue other professional certifications. Ultimately, this can boost a company’s bottom line whilst improving the employee experience and employer brand. 

Unpaid holidays being taken

Commonly Asked Questions About Unpaid Leave

Is unpaid leave a legal right in the UK?

Unpaid leave is not a legal right in the UK. It is typically subject to the employer’s discretion and may vary depending on the company’s policies, employment contracts, or collective agreements with trade unions. However, many employers recognise the importance of providing this benefit to support their employees.

How many days of unpaid leave can UK employees take? 

There is no minimum requirement for how many days employees in the UK can take as unpaid leave, apart from time off for childcare or public duties like jury service.

Is jury service unpaid leave?

Even though it’s part of public duties, employers have no legal obligation to pay employees for jury duty, although most employers do. If you don’t, they can technically claim a ‘loss of earnings allowance’ from the court. Find out more here.

Can an employer refuse a request for unpaid leave?

Yes, an employer can refuse a request for unpaid leave. However, employers are encouraged to have transparent policies and fair processes in place for considering such requests. Consistency is crucial when assessing employee requests to ensure fairness and prevent discrimination.

Can an employer force their staff to take unpaid leave?

Yes, your employer can make you take forced unpaid leave under certain circumstances. There are some occasions when you might be able to collect unemployment benefits whilst on forced unpaid leave. If there’s not sufficient work for you, they can enact ‘short-time working’ which allows an employer to send you home.

Can an employee take unpaid leave for any reason?

The reasons someone might take unpaid leave may vary depending on the employer’s policies. While personal emergencies and family commitments are common reasons, employers may also allow unpaid leave for travel, educational pursuits, or other personal development opportunities. It is essential for employees to check their company’s policies or discuss their specific circumstances with their employers.

Manager working out how much unpaid leave employee entitled to

How does unpaid leave affect employee rights and benefits?

Unpaid time off does not typically affect an employee’s rights and benefits. Employment rights, such as statutory sick pay, maternity/paternity leave, and pension contributions, are generally protected during unpaid leave. However, it is crucial for employees to understand their specific entitlements and consult their employment contracts or company policies for clarity.

Can an employee request unpaid leave for an extended period?

The length of unpaid leave an employee can request may depend on the employer’s policies and the employee’s individual circumstances. While some employers may limit unpaid leave to a few days or weeks, others may allow longer periods, such as months or even years, for career breaks or sabbaticals. It is essential to discuss the duration of unpaid leave with the employer to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

Can I get another job during unpaid leave?

Yes, but only in certain circumstances. It should be outlined in your employment contract. Asking your employer before taking up alternative work is the easiest way forward.

Unpaid Parental Leave 

Unpaid parental leave in the UK allows eligible employed parents to take time off work to care for their child or make arrangements for their child’s welfare. It is a legal entitlement that provides parents with the opportunity to balance their work responsibilities with their role as caregivers. The leave is available to both biological and adoptive parents and can be taken until the child reaches the age of 18 years.

To be eligible for unpaid parental leave, parents must:

  1. Have completed at least one year of continuous service with their employer.
  2. Have provided their employers with at least 21 days’ notice before the intended start date of the unpaid parental leave. However, employers may have their own internal policies that require a longer notice period, so it is essential for employees to consult their company’s policies and procedures.
  3. Be the legal parent, i.e. named on the child’s birth certificate or adoption certificate.
  4. Not be self-employed or a ‘worker’. 
  5. Not be a foster parent.

An employer reserves the right to ask for proof of the above criteria.

If you’re unsure about whether someone has legal ‘parental responsibility’, check the government website.  There, you can also find more information about eligibility and entitlement.

book free demo factorial

Commonly Asked Questions About Unpaid Parental Leave

How long is unpaid parental leave? 

The maximum amount of unpaid parental leave an employee can take in the UK is 18 weeks per child. However, this is subject to a limit of four weeks per year, unless the employer agrees otherwise.

The leave can be taken in blocks of 1 or 2 weeks at a time depending on the needs of the employee and the agreement with the employer.

Can employers postpone unpaid parental leave? 

While employees have a legal entitlement to unpaid parental leave, employers have the right to postpone the leave in certain circumstances. For example, if the absence of the employee would unduly disrupt the business operations, the employer can postpone the leave and propose an alternative time period within six months.

Can an employee on unpaid parental leave be fired? 

During unpaid parental leave, employees are protected from unfair dismissal or detrimental treatment by their employer. Their terms and conditions of employment, such as pension contributions and annual leave entitlement, should also remain unaffected, except for the absence of salary or wages during the leave period.

What is the difference between parental leave and shared parental leave?

It is important to note that unpaid parental leave differs from shared parental leave. Shared parental leave allows eligible parents to share the leave between them, receiving statutory pay for a specified period. On the other hand, unpaid parental leave does not involve shared leave and is unpaid throughout the designated period.

Emma is a Content Writer with 5 years of Marketing experience. She specialises in HR strategy and modern workplace trends. When she's not writing, she's running by the beach or cooking Italian food.

Related posts

Leave a Comment