What is the purpose of parental leave?

Being a working parent can be challenging, and it doesn't stop once the child is no longer a baby

Thankfully, employees in the UK can request unpaid time off to take care of their children’s needs up until their 18th birthday. This is called ‘parental leave.’

Note that it’s different from ‘shared parental leave,’ which is time off after a new child is born or adopted.

The purpose of parental leave

Parental leave is designed for working parents who need to look after their child when a specific need arises. For example, your employee might need to:

  • accompany their child at hospital
  • make visits to potential new schools
  • look after a child who has been suspended or expelled from school
  • spend time with their child during an emotional upset or bereavement
  • take extra care of a disabled child or premature baby

The parent does not have to be with their child 24 hours a day during the leave period, but it’s expected that they will spend the majority of the time together.

Who can take parental leave?

An employee can request parental leave if they have been employed by your company for at least one year.

Mothers and fathers have equal entitlement. That includes parents of biological and adopted children.

Employees may be able to get Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and Statutory Shared Parental Pay (ShPP) if they’ve had a baby or adopted a child. Your employees can take parental leave immediately following their maternity (or paternity) leave.

How long does parental leave last?

Usually, parental leave is taken as a number of whole weeks, with one week being the minimum period. Your employee can ask for up to 18 weeks’ parental leave in total while they work for your company, and up to four weeks per year per child.

It’s normal practice for parental leave requesters to give at least 21 days’ notice. So parental leave isn’t the best option if a child suddenly becomes ill and the employee needs to leave work.

Employee rights and parental leave

During parental leave, your employee’s rights do not change. They are still entitled to the same contractual notice period, can accrue holiday, and have the same entitlement to company benefits.

The main difference is that your company does not have to pay an employee’s salary while they are on parental leave — although many employers still do.

It’s also prudent to ensure that your company doesn’t discriminate against an employee on parental leave, or who is requesting leave.

Examples of employee rights

The following examples show how you might accommodate employees’ rights to parental leave in two common situations.

Example 1

A female employee is due to return from maternity leave in six weeks. She has used her full entitlement but wants to stay longer with her new baby. She writes to you requesting an extra four weeks. You have the option to accommodate the employee by allowing her take these additional weeks as unpaid parental leave.

Example 2

One of your employees is a single father. His son needs treatment at a specialist hospital several times a year. He takes one week off four times a year to accompany his son. He has used four weeks already this year and requests another fortnight of parental leave. By law you are not required to say yes, but might use your discretion to allow it, remove it from future entitlement, or suggest that he uses annual leave entitlement instead.

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