Leave of Absence Guide

03 December 2020

It’s an unavoidable truth that employees will want and need to take time off. Employees have a statuatory right to this, but the question some employers may have is, what exactly are they entitled to?

Furthermore, when would this time off from work become a leave of absence?

Handling leave of absence can call for several different approaches. For example, there are valid reasons for a leave of absence from work. These include a doctor’s letter for absence, sickness absence and carer’s leave.

Absenteeism can also include child care leave of absence and even annual leave. Leave of absence essentially refers to when an employee is not at the office or working their hours for one reason or another.

But what is considered an excessive absence from work? Does unpaid leave count towards an employee’s leave of absence? Peninsula explores below.

What is a leave of absence in the UK?

Leave of absence in the UK is when an employee takes a period of time away from their primary job yet maintains their employee status.

It’s worth noting that there’s a distinct difference between time off vs leave of absence. One of the primary differences is the duration of the absence.

Short-term; time off

Short term absence is time off, such as a day booked off to attend jury duty, whereas long term absence is leave of absence.

For example, annual leave is time off, as this time off is manageable and planned around. 

The former is a statutory leave of absence. Considered the minimum amount of holiday days an employee can take, statutory leave of absence is a valid form of leave of absence.

Any short term absence, such as sick days, may be unpaid leave. Because of this, unpaid leave doesn’t count towards leave of absence.

Long-term; leave of absence

However, parental leave or a career break is a type of leave of absence.

There are special exceptions to this though. An employer may have an employee remain within their employment whilst on long-term unpaid leave. For example, on an unpaid sabbatical.

In the event of excessive absenteeism due to sick leave, once an absent employee is fit for work they may need to take part in a return to work interview.

What is a valid reason for a leave of absence?

As previously discussed, there are valid reasons for an employee to be absent from work. These include:

It is worth remembering that employees should check for eligibility before asking for leave. This could refer to something as simple as there being enough other team members available to cover an absent employee. 

Alternatively, clauses outlining eligibility for a leave of absence may be present in an employee’s contract.

Unauthorised absence from work

Even when justified, not all leave of absence is completely valid.

For example, excessive absence from work would be more than the number of holiday days granted to an employee. This is where options like sick leave become appropriate, as this can avoid multiple absences from work.

However, many employers will be strict about what counts as excessive absenteeism. For example, it’s common for eight occurrences of unauthorised absences within a year to merit employment termination. However, this can vary, depending on the contract. Some may not tolerate as many unauthorised absences.

Without considering sick leave, frequent days at home while ill or often leaving work to visit the doctors can become problematic. This may be the only time persistent absence from work can be valid, otherwise, it will be multiple absences.

Extensive and persistent absence from work can serve as the grounds for serious misconduct.

Absence at work laws

There are laws that cover employees when taking a leave of absence. These don’t cover all types of absences, they only cover the rights of employees for:

  • Helping dependants: laws state that employees can take unpaid leave to help someone that is a dependant of them.
  • Statutory sick pay and sick notes: in an employee’s contract, there may be clauses that discuss sick pay. These include how long sick pay can last, the pay rate of sick pay, and any specific rules the employer has about sick pay.

How to manage absence at work

Unauthorised absence from work is the type of leave of absence that creates problems in the workplace. Managing this is the difference between understanding time off and pursuing disciplinary action.

Requesting a leave of absence from work in the UK isn’t always black and white. For example, there are ‘duvet days’ that are essentially soft-versions of sick leave. These are for employees wishing to request sick days for matters not entirely related to an illness, such as being hungover.

Along with duvet days, there are other ways to avoid disciplinary hearings for absent employees:

  • Return-to-work interviews: employers should keep in contact with employees. When employees return from an absence, employers should make sure there are no more lingering problems. Identifying potential future issues may help prevent them.
  • Keep track of absences: employers should keep track of absences, just in case patterns begin to emerge. For example, an employee that takes every Monday off with sick leave after payday Friday may need an informal chat.
  • Incentivise non-absences: it’s worth considering ways to make employees want to avoid absences. For example, some companies provide compensation for employee who take no sick days throughout a year. This risks employees not calling in sick when they are legitimately ill, which is why safeguards and ground rules should be in place.
  • Consider flexible working: some employees may frequently be absent due to arriving late. In some cases, an employee fearing that they will be late may call in sick to avoid reprimanding lateness. Offering flexible working can make life more comfortable for employees and prevent absences.

Help with employee absences

Confusion between holiday entitlement and unpaid leave can get the best of any HR team.

This is why Peninsula offers expert insight and assistance.

Whether it's specialist on-site HR help or making use of the 24-hour hotline, Peninsula provides expertise for any business.

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