Leave of Absence

A leave of absence is a break from employment by and employee in which they still maintain their status as an employee. This can be as simple as holiday leave or periods of sickness. 
  • Author: Siva
  • Last updated: April 5, 2022
  • 5 Minutes
leave of absence

It’s an unavoidable fact of life that employees will at some point want or need to take time off work. All employees have a statutory right to take a leave of absence. But the question for many employees is what exactly are employees entitled to?

Handling leaves of absence can call for several different approaches, depending on the nature of the request. For example, there are many valid reasons for a leave of absence including holiday, sickness absence and carer’s leave. Absenteeism can also include leave for childcare reasons or to cover public responsibilities.

With so many different reasons for absence, confusion is common. But never fear because we are here to help. In this article we will look at what constitutes a leave of absence, whether an absence should be paid or unpaid, and what the rights of an employee and employer are. Let’s get started.

What is a leave of absence? 

A leave of absence is a break from employment by an employee in which they still maintain their status as an employee. This can be as simple as holiday leave or periods of sickness. 

Other times it can be leave from work caused by a pressing need that prevents the employee from going to work and performing their duties. This can be for occasions such as childbirth as well as certain personal responsibilities. 

Many absence from work are set out in law and as such must be carefully managed.

What reasons are there for a leave of absence?

There are many reasons to take a leave of absence from work. These can be for simple things like to take a holiday or go to the dentists. More complicated reasons include maternity/paternity leave, civic duties (e.g., to perform the role of a Magistrate), and absence due to a conviction. Here are a few reasons that an employee may request a leave of absence:

  • Leave to look after a new child. This can be for antenatal care, maternity, paternity, parental, or adoption leave.
  • Taking time off work for family issues, such as an ill child or parent.
  • Taking time off for public duties or to cover activities by a trade union official or a learning representative. 
  • Taking a leave of absence from work to carry out duties as a personal fund trustee.
  • Time off work to study for educational qualifications. This is usually limited to those between 16 and 17 years old.
  • Time off for duties by a health and safety official or employee representative.
  • Time away from work to accompany another worker to a disciplinary or grievance hearing.

What is an unpaid leave of absence?

An unpaid leave of absence is used when an employee’s absence from work is not covered under an employer’s existing benefits or their statutory rights. This can include absences for:

  1. Non-emergency medical appointments
  2. Dental appointments
  3. Time off to help sick non-dependents
  4. Vacations outside of an employee’s leave allowance

How is an unpaid leave of absence different from other types of absences?

In simple terms, an unpaid leave of absence is an absence where an employee receives no pay from their employer. 

When might I be paid for a leave of absence?

Paid leave is often set out by the government in an employee’s statutory rights. But employers can offer staff more paid time off if they wish. Every employee is entitled to a minimum of 5.6 weeks holiday every year. They will also be allowed to take a non-defined amount of time off due to sickness.

For any other reason it is generally up to the employer to decide if they will pay for the absence, Rules for these absences will often be set out in the employee’s terms of employment.

What are the rules for being absent from work due to illness?

Staff absence due to a legitimate sickness is one of the main reasons for employees taking a leave of absence. Employees who dishonestly take time off for illness, risk being disciplined. In severe cases, it can result in the employee being dismissed for misconduct.

In terms of pay when off sick, the Statutory Sick Pay system covers employees who are absent through illness. Most contracts of employment include terms that cover sickness including whether the employee will be paid and for how long. Legally an employee will receive £96.35 per week Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if they are too ill to work. This is paid by the employer for up to 28 weeks. An employer can get more if the company has a sick pay scheme (or ‘occupational scheme’) but never less.

Sickness absenteeism should follow a fair procedure with evidence obtained about employee capabilities to work. Severe cases may involve an examination by an occupational health specialist or a doctor to assess an employee’s ability to work.

Illnesses lasting more than 12 months are usually considered a disability as defined by the Equality Act. In this case, all reasonable adjustments should take place to enable the employee to return to the workplace at some time in the future. It’s important to note that long-term illness may give an employer grounds to terminate an employee’s employment.

What are the rules for compassionate leave of absence?

Government rules dictate the ‘right for time off to care for dependents’. This is often called compassionate leave. Compassionate leave provides an individual with time away from work to care for sudden illness (or death) of a dependent family member who lives with them.

It’s important to note that a leave of absence on compassionate grounds cannot be used for non-emergencies and/or non-dependents.

How are enforced leave of absence managed?

Enforced absence from work sometimes occur. This can be for things like an arrest, deportation, or prison sentence.

Enforced leaves of absence often constitute a breach of contract and may lead to dismissal. 

One exception is jury service, which is often allowed despite being no specific laws governing it. Failing to attend jury service could be considered as contempt of court, making dismissal by an employer grounds for an unfair dismissal claim.

How to manage a leave of absence as an employer?

It’s important as an employer that you set out details of how you manage leave of absences in your employees’ terms of employment or other staff policy. These policies must not only adhere to legal obligations but set out how you wish to deal with situations that are at your discretion, such as managing sick leave. 

It’s also important to note that any policies must be applied fairly to all employees. Failure to do this can give grounds for unfair dismissal.

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Written by Siva

I write & describe the value & benefits delivered by Paperhift's rota planning, staff time tracking, and employee payroll management software. Especially useful for Shift Planners, Rota Managers, Team Admins, and HR Teams :-)