How to manage dependant leave

Manage time off for dependants with BrightHR’s guidance and support

First published on Wednesday, Jul 10, 2024

Last updated on Wednesday, Jul 10, 2024

Whether you’re a business owner or an HR professional, you’ll undoubtedly appreciate the importance of personal and professional staff support. By law, this must extend to the allowance of time off for employees in emergencies where dependants are involved.

Time off should be allowed in the event of a family member falling ill, being injured or assaulted. There may also be a need to arrange provision of care.

We’ll highlight the employer’s responsibilities for managing and accommodating time off from work in this article. Emphasising the importance of supporting work-life balance, we’ll reflect on the challenges employees face in balancing work and care responsibilities within the UK’s legal framework.

Considering employer responsibilities for dependant leave

UK law assures employees of a "reasonable" amount of time off in emergencies, with no limit on the number of times this leave can be taken. While it’s fair to discuss the impact on work performance, a flexible and accommodating approach will earn employee trust. Empathy will go a long way.

While you may offer paid time off for dependant leave, there’s no legal requirement to do so. Nor are there limitations on the amount of time that may be taken for the vital care and support of dependants. However, it’s important to note that dependant leave can only be taken in the event of an emergency that involves a dependant and the time off needs to be reasonable.

Time off for dependants may be taken if there’s a need for:

  • Support of a family member with a mental or physical illness (this doesn’t have to be life-threatening or require full-time care)

  • Taking a dependant to hospital if they unexpectedly go into labour

  • Looking after a child when no alternative support is available

  • Supporting a child who’s been involved in a fight, injured on a school trip or suspended from school

Time off for dependants may be taken if the emergency involves:

  • Spouse, partner or civil partner—including same sex couples

  • Child or parent

  • Person who lives in their house—only if not a tenant, lodger or employee

  • Person who relies on them for help in the event of an accident, injury or illness

  • Person who relies on them to make care arrangements

If your employee is not eligible to take dependant leave, or there’s going to be extended time off from work, you might want to look at an alternative type of leave, such as annual, parental, carer’s leave.

Given that dependant leave involves an emergency, your employee may not be able to inform you right away, but they should inform you as soon as possible that they require time off for a dependant.

Your employees mustn’t be treated unfairly if they take time off. They should be granted the same rights and opportunities as their colleagues. When an employee tells you that they need to take dependant leave, this shouldn’t be seen as grounds for dismissal or redundancy.

Male employee on dependant leave, looking after sick dependant while taking their temperature.

Creating supportive dependant leave policies

As a business owner, it’s best practice to create clear and supportive policies for dependant leav. These policies should be included in the Employee Handbook or accessible through the company intraneet.

The following details should be included in a dependant leave policy:

  • An explanation of the right

  • Persons considered as dependants

  • What’s considered as “reasonable” time off

  • Whether such time off will be paid or unpaid

  • The employee’s responsibility to inform you when they need to take dependant leave

If you need help with this BrightHR comes with an extensive HR document library with a handy dependant leave policy template to ensure you cover all the essentials.

Showing respect and empathy during dependant leave

It’s essential that you treat every employee as a person, with a life and connections outside the workplace. You should also appreciate that emergencies happen and that work responsibilities may not be the priority when loved ones need urgent support.

With that said, you should approach the management of time off for dependants with sensitivity and compassion. Employees, in turn, should respect company policies.

Although caring about your employee’s wellbeing is important, you’ll also want to ensure that work continues with minimal disruption. You might worry about the possibility of arranging cover and how much time off the employee will need. Still, you should handle such situations properly, showing support at the most trying of times.

In the first instance, the employee should get in touch as per your time off for dependants policy. This might mean calling, or emailing to let you know that they need time off work. They should also give some indication as to how long the absence will last—however this may not be possible in an emergency.

It’s important to be calm and professional in handling such communication. You should confirm whether it will be classed as dependant leave and if it will be paid or unpaid according to your policy.

Ideally, you’ll have taken training on how to best deal with emergencies. If not, having access to a direct line to HR and employment experts—like BrightAdvice—can assist you in crafting scripts for structuring such conversations.

No matter how long employees have been working for your company, or how well-established the professional relationships are, everybody should be treated with the same rules and respect.

Communicating during time off for dependants

You’ll probably want to stay in touch with any absent employees out of concern for their wellbeing and a hopeful return to work as normal. While regular contact may be appreciated, you shouldn’t put pressure on them.

Instead, it’s best to discuss contact arrangements with your employee and agree this with them if possible, as this will vary on a case by case basis and what is appropriate will depend on the circumstances.

It’s vital that you show respect for the absent employee’s boundaries and right to privacy. You shouldn’t pry or pressure them into disclosing any information about their loved one’s circumstances.

Open questions may be asked as a means of showing concern and your willingness to listen.

You might discuss arrangements for a phased return, with reduced hours and workloads to ease the burden on an employee who’s been through distress. Follow-up meetings may be arranged so that you can continue to monitor their wellbeing.

Such communication should reassure the absent employee that you care. They should feel that their work contributions are valued and that they can count on the company’s continued support.

If complete privacy is requested, then business communications should be limited to those required by law—depending on how long for and whether this request is reasonable.

Female employee on dependant leave looking after their sick child who is dependant on them for care.

Managing workload and responsibilities during dependant leave

The management of planned leave should be relatively easy, in that you’ll be able to plan for temporary cover and sharing of the workload. That said, you’re well advised to create contingency plans detailing the steps that should be taken in an emergency.

As mentioned, you should try to limit any conversations with those taking time off for dependants to general wellbeing. However, it might be necessary to ask questions about set processes and duties that the employee would otherwise be expected to perform.

For example, you might have to ask for the password to a project file or if there are any urgent tasks that need to be assigned to other staff. So, it is reasonable for you to ask the employee about the work that needs to be covered in their absence.

Care should be taken when allocating resources to mitigate the impact of time off on other employees and the wider business. You should consider which projects need to be completed as a priority and which can be put on the back burner. 

Responsibilities should only be passed on if you know that another employee has the required capacity, knowledge, and skills. Ideally, you’ll have invested in cross-training, so that various roles can be covered as needed.

How BrightHR Can Help with time off for dependants

By now, you’ll have a better understanding of time off for dependants and the ways of reducing any negative impacts on your business. Where possible you should try to see yourself in the absent employees' shoes, with support and accommodations being made to ensure that they can deal with any emergencies and return to work with minimal stress.

From the recording of unplanned time off to the filling of open shifts, BrightHR’s absence management software makes everything that much easier. See for yourself how BrightHR can help your business by booking a free demo today.


Lucy Cobb

Employment Law Specialist

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