Emergency leave

Understanding and managing emergency leave at work

First published on Wednesday, Dec 22, 2021

Last updated on Friday, Mar 15, 2024

Unexpected incidents can disrupt your carefully planned work schedule at any moment. Whether an employee has to deal with an emergency involving a loved one or a family emergency requiring immediate attention.

As an employer, it's crucial to understand your employees' rights and how to support your employees during these emergency situations.

Let's explore the details of taking emergency leave, helping you gain the knowledge and tools necessary to navigate these situations effectively and within the lines of the law.

What is emergency leave?

Emergency leave, also referred to as time off for dependants, is the time an employee takes off work to address an unexpected incident involving a dependant. For example, if an employee's child falls ill.

But there are several other reasons why your employee may need to take emergency leave.

employee looking after sick child on emergency leave

What counts as an emergency?

The first thing that comes to mind when you think about an emergency may be a life-threatening situation. But the reason why your employee may require leave from work doesn’t have to be life-threatening in order to be valid. The only requirement is that it must involve a dependant and be unforeseen.

The following circumstances would be considered for emergency leave:

  • A dependant falls ill suddenly (mental or physical illness)
  • A childminder fails to turn up and alternative childcare arrangements are needed
  • Sudden issues with a dependant's care arrangements
  • An unexpected incident involving a child during school hours
  • A dependant dies or funeral arrangements need to be made (you may choose to offer compassionate leave or bereavement leave for this)

Of course, general emergencies can occur at any time. For example, if an employee’s car breaks down and they are unable to get to work. This, however, wouldn't be considered a valid reason for emergency leave.

Other types of leave could be used for emergencies or unexpected incidents that do not involve a dependant such as compassionate leave, annual leave, unpaid leave, banked time off in lieu, or making the time up later.

Who counts as a dependant?

The term "dependent" refers to individuals who rely on your employee for care and support. This includes their husband, wife, civil partner or partner, child, and parent.

A dependent can also be someone who lives in the same household as the employee, provided that they are not a tenant, lodger, or employee of the employee. This includes cohabiting and same-sex partners, as well as other family members or unrelated individuals who live in the employee's home as a family.

This definition also applies to a person who reasonably relies on the employee to make arrangements for the provision of care, such as an elderly neighbour.

family members holding hands representing employee dependants

The law on emergency leave and employee rights

As an employer in the UK, you must adhere to the provisions outlined in the Employment Rights Act 1996, which grants employees the statutory right to take time off to handle emergencies involving their dependants.

Under this act, employees have the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off when facing an emergency. It is crucial to familiarise yourself with these legal obligations and ensure that your company policies and employment contracts comply with them.

Failing to accommodate emergency leave requests or treating employees unfairly can result in legal liabilities, such as unfair dismissal claims and employment tribunal proceedings.

How much time off should I give employees for emergency leave?

As mentioned above, your employees are allowed a reasonable amount of time off to deal with emergencies.

Because every emergency is different, there’s no set limit for what is considered reasonable time off. So how do you determine what a reasonable amount of time off would be?

While there's no legal timeframe for emergency leave, you should exercise consistency, discretion and empathy when assessing how much time off to give your employee.

Consider factors such as:

  • The nature of the emergency
  • Your employee's caregiving responsibilities
  • The availability of alternative care arrangements

Aim to strike a balance between supporting your employees during difficult times and ensuring minimal disruption to your business operations.

Who is eligible for emergency leave?

By law, any individual who is legally classified as an employee has the right to take time off work to attend to a dependant in the event of an emergency.

However, employees are generally expected to provide you with relevant details regarding the nature of the emergency as soon as reasonably possible.

Is emergency leave paid or unpaid leave?

While emergency leave is unpaid according to the Employment Rights Act, you may choose to offer paid compassionate leave as part of your company policy or employee's contract.

Providing paid leave demonstrates your commitment to supporting employees during challenging times and can alleviate financial burdens.

Just remember to communicate your policies regarding paid leave to avoid confusion and ensure consistency across your business.

Are there exceptions or alternatives to emergency leave?

If an employee knew about the emergency beforehand, they would not qualify for emergency time off.

For example, if they have pre-arranged medical appointments, your employee would not qualify for emergency leave, but the employee could request to use their annual leave or use any banked time off in lieu. Alternatively, you could offer them unpaid time off for those appointments or allow them to make the time up later depending on what is in their employment contract.

The length of time your employee needs off to deal with the emergency situation and who is involved will determine the type of leave they should use.

Another example would be if an employee has a sick child. The initial unexpected incident could be covered under emergency leave but if they need more time off to look after their child, they could request to take parental leave instead.

Top tips and tricks for handling and managing emergency leave

As the nature of an emergency can cause unexpected disruption to your business, being prepared and having a plan in place to handle employee emergency leave is the best course of action.

Here are some tips and tricks to help you navigate emergency leave situations:

1) Have a clear emergency leave policy in place

Having a well-defined time off for dependants policy outlining what qualifies as an emergency, and the process for emergency leave is essential.

Be sure to include the policy in your company handbook or employment contract. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page, minimising confusion and ensuring consistency in your approach to emergency leave.

2) Show flexibility

Emergencies can happen at any time, and by definition will involve your employees needing time off at short notice. Consider offering support like flexible scheduling or remote work options to help them manage their work responsibilities when urgent matters arise.

3) Be empathetic

You should be understanding of the personal reasons behind the emergency leave . Whether it's a family emergency, a natural disaster, or a medical emergency, you should show empathy and support for your employees. This will help employees feel valued and supported during difficult times.

4) Communicate clearly

Communicating clearly with employees about your emergency leave policy and any updates or changes to the policy is essential. This will help ensure that employees are aware of their rights and obligations when it comes to emergency leave.

5) Document everything

It's best practice to keep detailed records of all emergency leave taken by your employees. Consider using a secure and unlimited cloud-based HR document storage system to make this process significantly easier.

This will also help make sure that there is a clear audit trail in case of disputes or legal challenges.

By following these tips and tricks, you can handle emergency leave situations fairly and compassionately, while also protecting your business interests. Because a well-executed emergency leave policy is a win-win for everyone.

How BrightHR can help you manage emergency leave

Dealing with emergency leave work situations that require an employee to take family emergency leave/time off for a dependant can be incredibly challenging for both the employee and the employer.

So, you as their employer must handle the situation with tact and sympathy while balancing the continuation of your operations. It’s crucial to listen to your employees' reasons for needing time off and make sure that you treat them fairly when they are absent.

If you mistreat or dismiss employees who take emergency leave, you could face constructive dismissal claims or unfair dismissal claims brought before the employment tribunal. This can be a costly affair and can damage your reputation as an employer.

BrightHR is here to help alleviate any stress you may have about managing emergency leave.

We provide access to a team of qualified HR and employment law experts who are available 24/7 to answer any questions or concerns you may have.

Plus, our complete HR document library includes a customisable 'Time off for dependents policy' that can be tailored to your specific business needs.

Our time-saving absence management software also allows you to log absences by type, including time off for dependents, compassionate leave, and bereavement.

We understand that emergency situations can often lead to stress and anxiety. With BrightHR in your corner, you will also have access to wellbeing support that provides you and your employees with round-the-clock, confidential mental health assistance.

It's everything you need to manage emergency leave and more.

If you're not already a BrightHR customer, book your free product demo today and see for yourself how BrightHR can transform your people management today.


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