A Guide to Unpaid Leave in the UK

Make sure you understand your business' rights when staff take temporary leave.

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Friday, Jun 28, 2024

Understanding unpaid leave is crucial for business owners in the UK, and getting it right can significantly impact your business operations and team morale.

Whether running a small business or managing a larger team, knowing the ins and outs of unpaid leave will help you maintain a compliant and supportive workplace. In this guide, we'll walk you through the key elements of unpaid leave you need to know about:

  • What it is
  • The different types of unpaid leave
  • The legal considerations you need to keep in mind
  • How to develop effective unpaid leave policies and procedures
  • The importance of prioritising employee health and wellbeing

What is unpaid leave?

Unpaid leave is a period of absence from work where an employee does not receive their usual salary. It can be requested for personal matters, family emergencies, extended travel, or other commitments that require time away from work.

For employers, granting unpaid leave can help retain valuable staff during personal crises without the financial burden of paid leave. This flexibility supports employees in managing life events that fall outside the scope of paid leave entitlements, ensuring they can address personal matters without risking job security.

In the UK, unpaid leave is governed by various statutory entitlements and protections. While there isn't a comprehensive law specifically for unpaid leave, several regulations provide guidance:

Parental leave

Governed by the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Parental Leave Regulations 2013, eligible employees can take up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave for each child up to their 18th birthday to care for their welfare.

You can read our full guide on parental leave here.

Time off for dependants

Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, employees have the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid leave to handle emergencies involving a dependant.

Here's our detailed look at dependant leave.

Extended leave

Some employers offer extended unpaid leave policies for sabbaticals or career breaks, outlined in company employment policies.

Types of unpaid leave

There are many reasons for taking unpaid leave. Understanding the different types of unpaid leave available can help business owners manage employee absences effectively while supporting their workforce. Here are the primary forms of unpaid leave, along with their eligibility criteria and typical circumstances:

Parental Leave

Parental leave (you can read more on parental leave here) is designed to assist parents in caring for their child's welfare and is governed by the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999.

To be eligible, employees must have at least one year of continuous service with their current employer have parental responsibility for their child. Employees can take up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave for each child, to be used before the child's 18th birthday. Leave is generally taken in one-week blocks, except in cases involving a disabled child, and cannot exceed four weeks per year per child unless an employer agrees to it.


Sabbaticals are extended periods of unpaid leave often used for personal development, travel, or pursuing interests outside of work. Although not a statutory right, many employers offer sabbaticals as part of their benefits package. Eligibility criteria for sabbaticals are typically set by you as the employer and you may choose to set a minimum period of service . Sabbaticals can be granted for a period of time an employer decides, allowing employees to recharge, gain new experiences, or further their education.

Time off for Dependants

Time off for dependants allows employees to take unpaid leave to handle emergencies involving dependants such as children, spouses, or elderly parents, as provided under the Employment Rights Act 1996. All employees are eligible for this type of leave, regardless of their length of service.

It can be used for situations like a dependant falling ill, breakdowns in care arrangements, or incidents involving a child at school. The duration of leave taken must be reasonable for the circumstances, we would recommend would be 1 to 2 days per instance, with further needs using another type of leave, such as annual leave entitlement.

Legal considerations

Offering unpaid leave comes with several legal implications that business owners must carefully navigate to ensure compliance and protect both the company and its employees. When employees take unpaid leave, several aspects of their employment may be affected:

Employment contracts

Any period of unpaid leave should be clearly outlined in the employee's contract or within a formal policy document. Changes to an employee's contract to accommodate non-statutory unpaid leave should be agreed upon in writing by both parties.


During unpaid leave, employees may not accrue certain benefits such as contractual holiday entitlement, pension contributions, or other perks. Employers should specify how unpaid leave impacts these benefits to avoid confusion and potential disputes.

Employee rights

Employees on unpaid leave retain their employment rights. They are entitled, where leave is short and a legal entitlement such as time off for dependants, to return to their jobs after their leave period and continue to be protected against unfair dismissal and discrimination.

Several statutory rights and obligations guide the provision and management of unpaid leave:

Statutory rights

Employees are entitled to certain types of unpaid leave, such as parental leave and time off for dependants, as mandated by law. Employers must respect these rights and accommodate eligible requests for unpaid leave accordingly.

Employer responsibilities

Employers are responsible for managing unpaid leave requests fairly and consistently. This includes assessing requests based on eligibility and the needs of the business, maintaining accurate records of all unpaid leave taken by employees to ensure compliance with statutory requirements, and informing employees about their rights and the process for requesting unpaid leave through clear and accessible policies.

Policies and procedures

Clear policies regarding unpaid leave are essential for maintaining transparency and order within the organisation. These policies ensure that all leave requests are handled consistently, preventing biases and adhering to legal requirements to avoid disputes and penalties. They also help employees understand their options and the process for requesting unpaid leave, which improves planning and communication.

Effective communication and thorough documentation are critical for managing unpaid leave effectively. Employers should clearly communicate these policies through employee handbooks, company intranets, or direct briefings to ensure everyone understands the procedures and expectations. Proper documentation includes using standardised request forms, keeping written records of approved leave with details on terms and duration, and implementing a tracking system to monitor leave patterns and ensure compliance.

Financial and operational impacts

Managing unpaid leave involves carefully considering its financial implications and implementing proactive strategies to mitigate operational challenges.

Financially, unpaid leave affects payroll management, requiring adjustments to ensure compliance with regulations and employee contracts. It may also impact employee benefits tied to salary, such as holiday pay accrual and pension contributions. Budgeting for unplanned absences is crucial to manage potential payroll savings or increased costs from temporary replacements or overtime.

Operationally, unpaid leave can strain staffing levels, leading to heavier workloads for remaining employees and potential burnout. It may disrupt project timelines and affect customer service levels, impacting client relationships and business reputation.

To mitigate these challenges, businesses can implement strategies such as: - Robust resource planning through cross-training and workload redistribution - Offering flexible work arrangements, like remote work options to help maintain productivity during staffing gaps - Clear communication with employees about leave plans - Hiring temporary or contract workers to alleviate workload pressures and ensure continuity

By addressing these financial considerations and implementing proactive operational strategies, businesses can minimise disruptions caused by unpaid leave, support employee wellbeing, and maintain overall business resilience. This balanced approach ensures sustained productivity and operational efficiency despite workforce absences.

Employee wellbeing and engagement

Unpaid leave provides important flexibility and support for employees' personal needs and family responsibilities. It helps them manage these without worrying about losing their job or facing financial difficulties, which reduces stress and improves mental wellbeing. Taking unpaid leave also allows employees to rest and recharge, preventing burnout and making them more effective when they return to work. This flexibility supports a workplace culture that values family commitments.

Unpaid leave also helps keep employees loyal and engaged. It shows that employers care about their wellbeing beyond work, which builds loyalty. Giving employees the flexibility to balance work and personal life increases their satisfaction and engagement. Opportunities like sabbaticals promote personal growth and career development, encouraging employees to stay with the organisation long-term. Overall, unpaid leave supports immediate balance and strengthens employee dedication over time.

All of the above contribute to a positive workplace culture. It builds trust between employers and employees by prioritising the wellbeing and needs of the workforce.

Flexible leave policies, including unpaid options, promote diversity and inclusion by accommodating various personal circumstances and cultural practices. These initiatives also make businesses more attractive to potential employees, highlighting a supportive work environment that values work-life balance and individual needs. Together, these factors create a workplace culture that emphasises employee satisfaction, loyalty, and overall wellbeing.

How BrightHR can help

At BrightHR, our sick leave and lateness tracking supports you in effectively managing unpaid leave is vital for maintaining operational stability and supporting employee wellbeing. Businesses can ensure fairness and transparency in leave management by prioritising compliance with employment laws, establishing clear policies, and implementing proactive management practices. Integrating unpaid leave into your strategy demonstrates a commitment to employee needs beyond their roles, fostering a motivated workforce and ultimately driving long-term success.

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