Time off for dependants

09 July 2019

Employees often try to balance their responsibilities between professional and personal life.

If an employee has dependants, they may request leave relating to issues involving them. This might be to care for an elderly parent or pick up a sick child during school hours.

Every employer is legally obliged to provide reasonable time off to deal with dependants in an emergency situation. Neglecting this right means you risk losing staff and facing reputational damages.

In this guide, we'll look at what time off for dependants is, how long staff can take leave for, and ways to support employees with dependants.

What is time off for dependants?

Time off for dependants is when you take leave so you can manage emergencies involving a person under your care.

An unexpected emergency involving a dependant can happen without warning. Therefore, it’s impossible to know when an employee will need to take leave. Because of this, you will need to deal with requests and absences on a case-to-case basis.

Time off to deal with dependants is a statutory right for all employees. And this is regardless of length of service  or job position. It only covers emergencies and doesn't involve scheduled events, like planned medical appointments, etc.

woman in a hospital bed

When is time off for dependants used?

Employees with dependants can face unexpected incidents at any given time. They may use this leave when no other form of care is available.

For example, an employee may use this leave when:

  • A dependant falls ill.
  • A child encounters a situation at school.
  • A dependant faces an unexpected disruption to their usual care arrangements.
  • A dependant gives birth.
  • A dependant faces a life-threatening accident or death.
  • A dependant's funeral plans need to be arranged.

Some emergencies involving a dependant may not qualify for taking reasonable leave. For example:

  • Social issues, like attending a GP appointment with an elderly neighbour living alone.
  • Personal crises, like having to deal with marital or relationship problems.
  • Environmental situations, like fixing a broken boiler which has caused flooding.

Here, an employer can offer unpaid leave to deal with the emergency instead.

Who is classed as a dependant?

If an employee is responsible for the care of another person, they're considered as a dependant. Dependants can include:

  • A spouse, partner, or civil partner.
  • A baby or child.
  • A parent.
  • A person who lives in the family home.
  • A person who relies on someone to make care arrangements.
  • A person who relies on someone in the event of an accident, illness, or injury (such as an elderly or disabled neighbour).

A dependant isn't someone who has a commercial relationship with an employee. For example, a live-in employee, tenant, or landlord.

Can other family members count as dependants?

Dependants can also include extended family members or other relatives. For example nieces and nephews or another relative, like a grandparent or great uncle/aunt, etc.

The employee must hold responsibility for the dependant and therefore act as their carer.

mourners carrying a coffin

UK law on taking time off for dependants

There isn't specific legislation which states how much time off carers are entitled to. However, there are legal requirements which every employer must comply with.

The UK law states time off for dependants must be ‘reasonable', under the Employment Rights Act 1992 (ERA). A reasonable amount of time will be dependent on the circumstance at hand.

For example, if an employee’s childminder fails, they may only require a couple of hours to deal with the emergency. Situations which require longer than a week's time off can go through other leave procedures.

Workers and the self-employed aren't eligible for this statutory right. However, an employer can decide to give reasonable time off equally to all their staff.

Make sure employees aren't refused time off based on length of service, even if they have only recently started. The rules on paid and unpaid time off can be added to employee contracts and handbooks.

Can you discipline employees for taking time off for dependants?

You should not discipline an employee for taking time off for dependants. As their employer, you need to deal with their unplanned absence accordingly.

Remember, it's their legal right to take reasonable leave so they can deal with emergency situations. You cannot take disciplinary proceedings or discriminate against them for taking leave.

If an employee is refused reasonable time off, they could raise a claim to an  employment tribunal (ET). If judges find you’ve unreasonably refused their leave rights, you could end up facing compensation penalties and reputational damages.

Every employer must manage emergency leave in a fair and considerate manner. In the end, this helps protect overall employee relations and welfare.

child treating ear ache

How to support employees taking time off for dependants

All employees should be confident enough to take reasonable leave when dealing with dependants.

By managing rules and procedures, you can support them during any emergency. And it also minimises the stress of work commitments during unprecedented times.

Let's look at ways to support employees taking time off for dependants:

Create a time off for dependants policy

The first step to take involves creating a 'time off for dependants' policy. This is a set of guidelines that state  your rules during emergency leave.

Every employee must acknowledge the terms of the leave policy. And must understand the consequences if they're breached. Your policy can cover things like:

  • What is 'time off for dependants'?
  • When can employees use it?
  • When can't you use it?
  • When should it be used instead of other forms of leave? (Like parental or compassionate leave).
  • Do employees receive paid or unpaid leave?
  • What absence information do employees need to provide? (During and after the emergency).

Alternatively, you can outline these rules in their employment contract and company handbook. Or you could add them to an existing leave policy, like an employer's policy on compassionate leave.

Request time off within reason

You never know when you need to deal with an emergency. That's why employees should be able to request time off within reason.

When they face emergencies involving a dependant, allow them to deal with the situation first. These initial moves can become a significant point in a dependant's life.

Once the situation has calmed down, employees should provide 'advance notice'. This means they need to make a reasonable effort to inform you about their absence. For example, they can do this by phoning your absence line or logging their leave through digital means.

This information should include general details of the emergency, how long they will be absent for (approximately), and whether they can provide evidence (only if necessary).

The point of requesting time off afterwards is not about finding out why they haven't come to work. It's about ensuring their safety and wellbeing; as well as offering support during unplanned emergencies.

Managing employees who require regular time off

In some cases, employees may require regular time off. Either from the start of their job, or as a new request. Maybe they're responsible for a new-born baby; or maybe an ill dependant is nearing death due to sickness.

Every employer needs to find a balance between caring for the welfare of their staff and business.

If an employee mentions they have a responsibility to dependants, make suitable changes to their work schedule. For example, you can offer flexible working conditions which allows them to balance work and personal commitments.

As an employer you may choose to provide alternative leave which offers additional aid and financial entitlements. Like

In the end, employees will respect and value your support. And this will transition into increased loyalty, performance, and revenue for your business.

Get expert advice on time off for dependants with Peninsula

When an employee asks for a reasonable amount of time to deal with personal responsibilities, be considerate and fair. Remember, these situations can come without warning. So, be supportive when employees have to manage an emergency involving a dependant.

If an employer neglects their rights, you could end losing staff, paying legal penalties, and even facing business damages.

Peninsula offers expert advice on taking time off for dependants. Our team offers an unlimited 24/7 HR advice service which is available 365 days a year; with multi-lingual assistance and fully trained counsellors ready to help.

Want to find out more? Book a free consultation for advice from one of our HR employment consultants. Call <a href="tel:08000282420" class="rulertel">0800 028 2420</a>.


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