How can an employee take unpaid leave?

unpaid leave

The majority of workers in the United Kingdom are entitled to 5.6 Weeks of paid holiday per year (annual leave). However, you may be wondering about what constitutes “unpaid leave” – something employees are less familiar with. Chances are, your contract is clear when it comes to paid annual, or statutory, leave. However, your rights regarding unpaid leave may be less clear. This article will discuss what unpaid leave is and how it affects you.


What is unpaid leave?

Put simply, unpaid leave is classed as a period of time in which an individual is allowed away from work for a particular reason, including (but not limited to), maternity/paternity leave or illness. A definition for unpaid leave is found on the Cambridge Dictionary Website.

Pretty simple right?

Perhaps not – although the concept is simple, the rules surrounding how to request/process unpaid leave are more complex. But trust me – when you understand it, you’ll see it isn’t too difficult to understand.

The difficulty lies in the fact that UK law does not explain unpaid leave as well as paid leave – leaving some employees and employers confused about their rights and what constitutes unpaid leave.


Scenarios where unpaid leave may be appropriate

As unpaid leave, unsurprisingly, leaves you without an income for the duration of the time taken off, some may feel unpaid leave is never an option. However, take a look at the following scenarios where unpaid leave may not only be appropriate – but necessary.

  1. Parental leave:
  • As outlined by the UK Government website regarding unpaid parental leave, scenarios where an employee can take unpaid parental leave include spending time with their children, looking at schools and spending time with other family members (including grandparents).
  • You are entitled (in law) to 18 weeks’ leave per child (including adopted children) until said child turns 18 years of age. You are limited to 4 weeks per year, however, unless you have agreed otherwise with your employer, or your child is disabled.
  • One “week” is equal to the number of days you usually work in a week. Thus, if you work 3 days a week, one “week” is 3 days. If, though, you work 5 days a week, one “week” is 5 days.
  • Please find eligibility details in the embedded link. The good news is your rights to return to your job after this period of leave are secured in UK law.
  • Finally, it is important to understand that parental leave applies to each child not each job – thus, if you clock up 15 weeks of unpaid parental leave then switch jobs, you are only entitled to an additional 3 weeks with your new employer.


  1. Caring for dependents:
  • Currently, in the UK, a dependent is not only defined as a child under 18 years of age – but anyone who relies on you for help and support.
  • Therefore – should you be caring for a family member, potentially an ageing parent, who needs your support to be taken for a hospital or doctor’s appointment, for example, then you are able to request unpaid leave.
  • Caring for a dependent (other than a child, where leave will be classed as unpaid parental leave) is not a legal responsibility of yours so you will have to request this leave from your employer.

Therefore, although unpaid leave might sound rough – it has its place in the workplace environment.


How do I get unpaid leave – as an employee

  • You must make your request for unpaid parental leave 21 days before your start date. In your request you must supply a start and an end date to your leave. As long as you are within your 18 weeks, you will be granted unpaid parental leave. However, your manager may shift your leave should they deem it to affect the company in an adverse way. They must do this, in writing, 7 days after receiving your request.
  • You may request unpaid leave to look after a dependent – unlike unpaid parental leave where 21 days’ notice is required, you may not be able to provide notice (if there is a medical emergency, for example). However – it is up to your employer whether they let you take this unpaid leave or not.


How does unpaid leave affect me as an employer

As a manager, you should be aware if any of your employees have children and honour any requests for unpaid parental leave. You have a number of rights as an employer.

  • You are not legally bound to give unpaid leave for an employee to care for a dependent (over 18) but it may be advisory to do so to maintain a good working environment
  • You may ask for proof of parenthood via birth/adoption certificate should you deem it appropriate and necessary
  • The employee must have worked with you for at least one year
  • You may choose to let employees have unpaid parental leave when they are not legally entitled but you are not forced to do so
  • An employee must give you 21 days (3 full weeks) notice of their unpaid parental leave – this does not have to be in writing, but you are able to ask for the request in writing should you wish to hold the information as part of your records
  • You may have reason to delay unpaid parental leave should the leave seriously disrupt the company running:
    • Within 7 days of the initial request you may write and explain why you made the decision
    • You must suggest a new start date for their unpaid parental leave within 6 months of their chosen start date
    • You may not change the length of the unpaid leave when rescheduling it

Thus, as an employer, you have rights as well as your employees.


Final thoughts on unpaid leave

Unpaid leave is something not often talked about – the GOV.UK website seemingly quiet on the topic. However, it is something, if used carefully, you can use to your advantage. Particularly for parents, unpaid leave is a way you can spend valuable time with your children outside of your annual leave – however, note that you only get 18 weeks’ leave per child. Use it sparingly and wisely. 

This is something LeaveMonitor can help with! With our platform, your employees can log a request for leave easily - including unpaid leave. Why not take a look at our trial or contact us for more information?

Joshua Nicholson

Joshua Nicholson is the Content Marketing Consultant at Leave Monitor and has been supporting the marketing team with fresh ideas and plans.