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A Comprehensive Guide To How Unpaid Leave Works In The UK

Ryan Green
Ryan Green October 11, 2022
Unpaid Leave UK

What is unpaid leave?

Unpaid leave is a type of leave that allows employees to take time off work without pay. This leave can be used for vacation, personal days, sick days, or any other reason an employee may need to miss work.

Unpaid leave can be taken at the employer's discretion and is typically not covered by unemployment benefits.

What are an employee's rights while on unpaid leave?

The UK government offers Statutory unpaid leave for employees who have worked for their current employer for more than 26 weeks. This leave can be used for a variety of reasons, including:

  • To care for a sick family member
  • To take care of a new baby or adopt a child
  • To deal with an emergency

Statutory unpaid leave does not include holiday or sickness leave. Employees on unpaid leave are still entitled to their normal pay and benefits, and they can return to their job at the end of their leave.

Reasons for unpaid leave

unpaid leave UK

There are several reasons why an employee might request unpaid leave in the UK:

  • Unpaid maternity leave
  • Unpaid paternity leave
  • Unpaid adoption leave
  • Unpaid parental leave
  • Compassionate leave
  • Doctor or dentist appointment
  • Emergencies
  • Jury service & public duties
  • Unpaid holidays
  • Sabbatical

Each type of unpaid leave has different purposes and lengths which we've broken down below:

Unpaid maternity leave

Unpaid maternity leave is leave that a mother can take from work to care for her new child. In the UK, most women are entitled to up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, but only 39 of those weeks are paid. 13 weeks are considered unpaid leave.

Unpaid paternity leave

Unpaid paternity leave is leave that a father can take from work to care for his new child. The UK government introduced statutory paternity leave in 2003, which entitles fathers to two weeks' leave from work. This leave can be taken at any time during the first year of the child's life.

To be eligible for statutory paternity leave, fathers must have been employed by their current employer for 26 weeks by the 15th week before the baby is due. They must also give their employer at least 28 days' notice of their intention to take paternity leave.

Fathers are entitled to take unpaid paternity leave even if they are self-employed or on a zero-hours contract. However, they will not be entitled to Statutory Paternity Pay unless they meet certain criteria.

Unpaid Adoption leave

Unpaid adoption leave is a period of leave that employees in the UK are entitled to take following the adoption of a child.

Employees who adopt a child are entitled to up to 52 weeks of leave, but only 39 of those weeks are paid. 13 weeks are considered unpaid leave.

Unpaid parental leave

unpaid leave guide paternity

In the UK, unpaid parental leave is leave that can be taken by either parent to care for their child. The leave can be taken up to 18 weeks after the child's birth or adoption, and must be taken within the first five years of the child's life.

Although the leave is unpaid, employees are still entitled to their statutory holiday entitlement while on unpaid parental leave. Employees are also able to take advantage of other benefits, such as flexible working arrangements and job-protected leave.

Unpaid parental leave can be a great way for parents to bond with their new child, without having to worry about work commitments. It can also give parents some time off to adjust to their new role and routine.

Compassionate leave

When an employee or family member is seriously ill, they may need to take time off of work. This leave is called compassionate leave, and it allows employees to take unpaid time off to care for themselves or a sick family member.

Compassionate leave can be used for any serious illness, including cancer, mental health conditions, and chronic illnesses. It can also be used for bereavement following the death of a close family member.

Employees are typically entitled to up to two weeks of compassionate leave per year. Some employers may offer additional paid or unpaid leave beyond this.

Doctor or dentist appointment

Employees are entitled to paid time off for medical appointments, but there are some caveats.

For example, you can only take time off for appointments that are considered "necessary." This means that if your doctor or dentist says the appointment is optional, you won't be able to take advantage of paid leave.

Finally, keep in mind that your employer may require you to provide proof of your appointment before granting you leave. A note from your doctor or dentist will usually suffice but if you cannot provide one it may be considered unpaid leave.


unpaid leave guide medical

Many employers don't offer paid leave for emergencies, which can leave workers in a difficult situation. Unpaid leave can be used in emergencies with little to no notice.

Jury service & public duties

Jury service is a public duty in which you will be requested to be part of a court case and serve as a jury member. Jury service is often considered unpaid leave from work. Some employers may pay you during this absence as well as other public duties.

Unpaid holidays

An unpaid holiday is a leave of absence from work that is granted to an employee without pay.

Unpaid holidays are usually granted at the discretion of the employer and may be given for any reason, such as religious observances, personal or family emergencies, or for other reasons.

In the United Kingdom, there is no legal requirement for employers to provide unpaid holidays, but many employers choose to do so as a benefit to their employees. Some employers may require employees to take unpaid holidays during periods of low business activity, such as during the summer months.

How is unpaid leave deducted from employee salaries?

If an employee is absent from work and doesn't have any available paid leave, their employer may deduct pay from their salary.

Unpaid leave can be deducted in full-day or half-day increments, depending on the company's policy. Some employers may require employees to provide a doctor's note or other documentation to verify the reason for the unpaid leave.

If an employee is absent for multiple days, their employer may deduct pay for each day of absence. For example, if an employee doesn't have any available paid leave and is absent for three days, their employer may deduct pay for all three days.

Deducting pay for unpaid leave can have a significant impact on an employee's earnings, especially if they are absent for a long period of time.

Forced unpaid leave

unpaid leave

According to the UK government website, "Forced unpaid leave is when your employer makes you take a certain number of days off work without pay. This could be because there's not enough work for you to do, or because your employer is trying to cut costs."

If you're forced to take unpaid leave, your employer must still give you your contractual entitlements, such as annual leave and sick pay. However, they can ask you to take this leave at a time that suits them.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many employers to send their employees home on unpaid leave. This leaves many workers in a difficult financial position, as they are not receiving any income but still have bills to pay.

Unpaid leave of absence letter

An unpaid leave of absence letter is a formal request to take time off from work without pay which an employee will typically submit to HR for review. This type of leave is often used for personal or medical reasons.

If an employee is considering taking an unpaid leave of absence, there are a few things HR should keep in mind.

There is no legal entitlement to unpaid leave. This means that it's entirely up to the employer whether or not they grant unpaid leave.

If an employee is thinking about taking an unpaid leave of absence, it's important to have a discussion together first. Make sure you understand the reasons why your staff member plans to take leave and how long they'll need.

Unpaid sabbatical leave policy

Many employers in the UK offer their employees the opportunity to take unpaid sabbatical leave.

This type of leave can be used for a variety of purposes, such as pursuing personal or professional development opportunities, taking care of family responsibilities, or traveling.

While unpaid sabbatical leave can be beneficial for both employees and employers, there are some important things HR teams should keep in mind.

Before deciding on if an employee can take unpaid sabbatical leave, it is important to ensure you are familiar with your company's policy in place as well as that particular individual's contract.

Some employers may require employees to give notice before taking leave, while others may not allow it at all.

How much unpaid leave can you take in the UK?

If you're an employee in the United Kingdom, you're entitled to 5.6 weeks of paid annual leave per year. But what about unpaid leave?

There is no statutory right to unpaid leave in the UK, but many employers will allow their employees to take unpaid leave in certain circumstances. For example, if you need to care for a sick family member or attend a funeral.

When an employee considers taking unpaid leave, it's important to check their employment contract first. This will detail any conditions that have been agreed upon regarding taking unpaid leave. For example, there may be a notice period required before taking any unpaid leave.

What are your employee's obligations while they're on unpaid leave?

When an employee takes unpaid leave, there are certain obligations they need to be aware of.

In the UK, employees on unpaid leave are still obligated to uphold the terms of their employment contract. This means they must still comply with their employer's policies and procedures, as well as any other contractual obligations.

During periods of unpaid leave, employees should also remain contactable and available to their employer if they need to be.

This is so that the employer can keep them up to date with developments at work, and vice versa. Employees should also let their employer know if they plan on taking any extended periods of unpaid leave, such as for holidays or other personal commitments.

Finally, employees on unpaid leave are expected to maintain a professional attitude and conduct themselves in a way that doesn't bring their employer into disrepute.

How can HR teams handle unpaid leave?

HR teams often have to deal with unpaid leave requests. This is a difficult issue to handle because it is often unclear why the employee is taking leave, and it can be hard to track down the employee when they don't show up for work unexpectedly.

There are a few things that HR teams can do to try and mitigate the issue of unpaid leave.

First, they should have a clear policy in place that outlines the consequences of taking unpaid leave. This will help to discourage employees from taking leave without pay.

Second, HR teams should keep track of employees who take unpaid leave and follow up with them after they return to work. This will help to identify any patterns or issues that may be causing employees to take unpaid leave.

Finally, they should ensure that an employee's contract explicitly outlines the differences between paid and unpaid leave and what the company's policies are.

HR teams should consider using an online absence management tracker to manage requests and unpaid leave.

Ryan Green
Ryan Green October 11, 2022

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