Giving employees time off work

Employers need to manage staff requests for time off work and understand whether staff have a statutory right to make a request, a right to be granted time off, and whether they have to be paid for that time.


8 min read

1. Overview

Your staff may request time off for many reasons such as holiday, training, jury service, or trade union duties. Some of these activities carry statutory rights to time off which means your staff have the right to the time off and, in some instances, the right to be paid.

A person’s employment status determines the some of the rights they have to time off, for example some rights are only available to employees and others are available for all workers.

If staff have the right to unpaid time off, you can use your discretion to pay them. Where they do not have the statutory right to time off, you can choose how to handle the request, but must have consistent policies to prevent unfairness and discrimination.

2. Holiday

Entitlement to paid annual leave

All workers, whether they are on full-time, part-time or zero-hours contracts, are entitled to take at least 5.6 weeks' paid annual leave.

This is equivalent to, for example:

  • 28 days for those who work five days a week
  • 14 days for those who work 2.5 days a week

Public holidays can be counted as part of the statutory annual leave entitlement.

However employers have the option to give workers the right to more paid holiday and make that part of their contract. In reality, holiday pay, like normal pay, is dictated by market rates. If you offer less annual leave and lower rates of pay than your competitors, you may find it difficult to recruit and/or retain the best workers.

It's unlawful not to pay a worker while they are on holiday by including an amount for holiday pay in the hourly rate of pay - something known as 'rolled-up holiday pay'. You must always pay a worker their normal pay while they are actually taking their leave.

For more information, read our guide on your obligations as an employer in relation to pay.

Managing holiday requests

It's important to have a clear policy on how requests for holiday (or any other leave) are made and what sort of requests for time off will be considered as holiday requests e.g. moving house, house renovations, attending weddings, dealing with family issues like divorce.

In some instances where staff have no statutory right to paid time off in other scenarios (see later sections) and you don't have a policy to offer above the legal minimum, employees could have the option of using annual leave for that time off.

Consider if there are any times the business is closed, such as Christmas, which staff will automatically take as holiday. On the other hand, there may be busy times where no leave is allowed, e.g. for venues hosting a key annual event. Staff should be aware how far in advance they need to request holiday.

The aim is to manage work scheduling to avoid ever being short-staffed, while treating staff fairly and being as flexible as possible. If you need to set limits for the number of staff who can be off at the same time, then be clear on what those are.

Take care with running "first-come-first-served" for holiday requests if it is always the same staff getting their preferred dates.

You do have the right to refuse holiday after it's been approved, but must give at least the same notice period as the length of holiday requested. Refusals are likely to cause conflict so should only be a last resort. Your policy should explain how to manage clashes and disputes.

Remember to keep track of those who have not taken their holiday - they should take their statutory time off, although they may choose to be paid in lieu for extra days above the statutory minimum.

HR software can be a useful tool to help you manage holiday schedules if you employ a number of workers.

3. Sick leave and medical appointments

Employees can take sick leave if they’re ill. Employees must give you a ‘fit note’ (sometimes called a ‘sick note’) from a healthcare professional if they’ve been ill for more than 7 days in a row and have taken sick leave. This includes non-working days, such as weekends and bank holidays. If they’re ill just before or during their holiday, they can take it as sick leave instead.

Your staff may be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay which is £109.40 a week for up to 28 weeks. Some employers offer more if they have a company sick pay scheme.

Generally employers are not legally required to grant time off work for hospital and other medical appointments although many do use their discretion to provide employment contracts that allow paid time off. Otherwise employees need to use annual leave or arrange appointments outside working hours.

4. Parents and carers

Employees who are pregnant, new mothers and adoptive parents - and the partners of such employees - may be entitled to statutory time off around the birth or adoption of their child. Some of this time off is paid if the employee qualifies.

Those who have caring responsibilities for other family members may require time off for emergencies, although this does not need to be paid.

Antenatal care

A pregnant employee has rights and is entitled to paid time off during working hours for antenatal care before maternity leave begins. This care can be medical appointments or antenatal and parenting classes.

Employees who are fathers and partners (including civil partners or same sex partners) have a legal right to take unpaid time off work to accompany their spouse/partner to up to two antenatal appointments.

Maternity Leave

All pregnant employees are entitled to 52 weeks maternity leave and it is compulsory for them to take two weeks immediately after the birth (or four weeks if they work in a factory).

Pregnant women who meet the qualifying conditions are entitled to 39 weeks’ Statutory Maternity Pay which is paid by the employer and reimbursed by HM Revenue and Customs. 

More in depth information on various scenarios is provided in the government employer guide and an in-depth guide from Maternity Action.

Adoption Leave

If they meet certain qualifying criteria, an employee adopting a child is entitled to:

  • 52 weeks' statutory adoption leave
  • 39 weeks' statutory adoption pay

Paternity Leave

Employees may be eligible for Statutory Paternity Leave and Pay if they and their partner are having a baby or adopting a child.

They can take either one week or two consecutive weeks’ paternity leave, which cannot start before the birth and must be finished within 56 days of the birth.

Shared Parental Leave

Employees may be eligible for Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and Statutory Shared Parental Pay (SHPP) if they’ve had a baby or adopted a child. This is where up to 50 weeks of leave can be shared between partners.

Unpaid parental leave

An eligible employee who is a parent is entitled to take up to 18 weeks' unpaid parental leave for each child, until their children turn 18. They can take up to four weeks per year per child (unless the employer agrees to more). This leave must be to look after their child’s welfare, for example to spend more time with their child.

Unpaid leave for family emergencies

Employees are allowed a reasonable amount of time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant, who may be a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, or someone who depends on them for care. Employers do not have to pay for this time off, but may choose to and should have a consistent policy. Emergencies may include illness, injury, assault, incident requiring collection from school, or care arrangements breaking down at short notice.

Unpaid Carer's Leave

The Carer’s Leave Act will come into force sometime after April 2024, though the date has not yet been confirmed. This new Act will give unpaid carers balancing unpaid care with paid employment the legal right to five days of unpaid carer’s leave. In the meantime, like anyone else, carers do have the right to request flexible working.

Further information

The website offers more advice and links to additional content covering types of maternity and parental leave.

The charity Maternity Action provides an employers' toolkit with checklists and model policies, as well as information sheets on employee's rights.

5. Bereavement

Time off for bereavement is also called compassionate or special leave.

Staff rights

Employees have the right to a reasonable amount of time off if a dependant dies (the amount is not defined in law). A dependant could be their child, parent, spouse or partner, someone who lives with them (not tenants) or someone who is reliant on them, such as a frail neighbour.

This time off does not have to be paid, although often employers have a policy that includes payment for a number of days.

If their child is stillborn or dies under the age of 18, an employee is entitled to two weeks of statutory Parental Bereavement Leave and entitled to two weeks of statutory Parental Bereavement Pay. Workers are not entitled to leave, but may be entitled to statutory pay for any time they take off.


An employee has the legal right to time off for the funeral for a dependant, but organisations may offer time off for funerals of those who are not dependants. There is no right to be paid for this time, but employers often do pay or come to an arrangement about using annual leave.

Bereavement policy

Regardless of whether an employee has a right to time off, it makes sense for employers to be compassionate in relation to each situation, for example if someone loses a close friend who is not technically a dependant.

To make it easier to handle these difficult situations it is worth having a bereavement policy, covering the scenarios when leave for bereavement could apply, how much time can be provided, if it is unpaid time or paid (and in which case, how much).

6. Training

Mandatory training

Employers often require workers to do mandatory training so they are able to do their role effectively and to a high standard. This training may be generic within the industry, such as achieving a certification for a particular skill. Or, it may be specific to the employers own processes - for example working the booking system or managing a complaint.

Employers are also required to provide certain training to meet their legal obligations for the safety and welfare of staff and customers. Sometimes referred to as statutory training, this might include fire safety or manual handling.

Time off to complete the training is usually provided during the working day, and the employee is usually paid for this time. If it's outside working hours, the employer will sometimes pay extra to cover this time. However this depends on what was agreed in the employment contract. Since 2020, employment contracts must set out the mandatory training, including any the employer does not pay for.

The right to request time to train

Workers in organisations with less than 250 staff do not have the right to request time off for training that is not mandatory.

For organisations of over 250 people, staff can make a formal request for time off for training that will improve the employee's effectiveness and benefit the business. If approving the request, the employer doesn’t have to pay for the training or study. However, they can choose to pay all or part of the fees if they think it will benefit the business.

Developing a policy for training requests

It is sensible for organisations of any size to have a policy for handling different types of training requests, as often it will benefit the business to have motivated employees who continue to acquire new skills, even if they do not directly apply to the current role.

Established businesses may be able to afford to give staff some or all of the time off they would like for their training. Employers sometimes contribute to some or all of the costs of the training but there may be a clause in the employment contract requiring a proportion of that cost to be repaid should the staff member leave the business within a certain time period.

Having a consistent approach, written in policy and contracts, means that employers are less open to accusations of discrimination or unfairness if different employees feel they've been treated differently.

Basic training/continuing training for young workers

Young employees are entitled to paid time off for training if they meet specific criteria. Employees aged 16 and 17 who did not reach a certain standard of education at school have the right to reasonable time off with pay while studying for a qualification that will help them reach that standard.

If they turn 18 while studying, they have the right to complete the course.

Redundancy situations

If they are being made redundant, staff who have been employed for two years by the time their notice period ends can request a reasonable amount of time off to arrange training and/or look for a new job. No matter how much time they take off, the most an employer has to pay is 40% of one week’s pay.

7. Job-related duties and activities

Trade union activities

Small businesses have the same legal obligations as larger employers when recognising and negotiating with trade unions.

Trade union reps are entitled to paid time off to get training and work as reps (as shop stewards, health and safety or union learning reps or other trade union officials).

Reps are not allowed paid time off to attend union meetings or go to meetings with union officials, however employers should allow unpaid time off for this.

Reps are not allowed any time off for industrial action.

Information and consultation

'Informing' means communicating with staff so they are updated about workplace matters. 'Consulting' is actively seeking and considering employees' views before making a decision.

By law, all employers must inform and collectively consult their employees about:

  • selling the business or buying a new one
  • making 20 or more redundancies in a 90 day period
  • health and safety issues

Get legal advice if you’re unsure whether you need to tell your employees about something.

If you have more than 50 employees you may also have to:

Trade union or elected employee representatives have the right to reasonable time off to attend information and consultation meetings during a collective redundancy situation.

If you are selling your business (or part of your business), trade union or elected employee representatives have the right to reasonable time off to attend information and consultation meetings.

In both collective redundancy and business transfer situations, you must allow employees paid time off where they are:

  • standing in an election to become an employee representative
  • undertaking training as such a representative

Negotiating representatives have the right to reasonable time off for meetings to set up an information and consultation agreement and exercise their duties.

Accompany a colleague at a hearing

Workers - not just employees - have the right to paid time off to accompany a colleague who is:

  • the subject of a disciplinary hearing
  • attending a hearing relating to a grievance they have raised
  • attending a hearing relating to a flexible working request they have made
  • attending a hearing relating to their request to work beyond their intended retirement date

8. Jury service and public duties

Jury service

You must permit an employee to have time off if they are called up for jury service. You do not have to pay staff while they are doing jury service, but many employers do.

You must not dismiss an employee or subject them to a detriment for having been summoned to participate. The employee would not need a year's continuous employment to lodge an unfair dismissal claim - and any such dismissal would be seen to be automatically unfair by an employment tribunal. However, employees are not protected against unfair dismissal if, after you have told them you believe your business will be seriously harmed by their absence, they unreasonably refuse or fail to apply to have their jury service deferred or to be excused from it.

Public duties

Employees holding certain public positions are entitled to reasonable unpaid time off to perform their duties. These roles include:

  • member of a local authority, police authority, school council or board in Scotland, educational governing body, health authority or primary care trust
  • member of any statutory tribunal, the Environmental Agency or SEPA
  • member of the prison visiting committees (Scotland)
  • local councillors
  • a Justice of the Peace (known as a magistrate outside Scotland)
  • a member of Scottish Water or a Water Customer Consultation Panel
  • a trade union member (for duties explained in the earlier section)

While you are not legally required to pay employees for public duty leave, many employers choose to do so to acknowledge their contribution to the community.

Employees can complain to an employment tribunal if they are unreasonably refused time off for public duties or dismissed for asserting the right to time off for public duties.

Employees in the armed forces

Staff don't have the right to ask for time off work for training if they’re members of the reserve armed forces but employers often provide it. Employees in the reserve forces have certain protections under employment law if they’re called up for service.

Employers of reservists also have particular rights and obligations in this situation - for example they may be able to claim financial assistance or apply for an exemption.

Volunteering with charities

Employees have no rights to request time off to volunteer, but some larger organisations provide employer-support volunteering, permitting employees to take a certain amount of paid time off to volunteer during work hours for charities or community groups of their choice or the employer's choice.

9. Career breaks

Employees have no rights to request a career break.

If a request is granted, arrangements to return to work after a career break are not legally binding and it could mean ending the existing contract of employment. Employers cannot be on the receiving end of legal action if they decide an employee cannot return to their job or a similar one.

Larger employers may want to develop discretionary policies on this.

10. Return to work and reasonable adjustments

It is good practice for employers to meet with employees when they return to work after an absence, to ensure they are ready to return, have any support they need and are up to date on any changes while they were off. They may wish to keep the reason for their absence confidential from colleagues.

Some staff may benefit from a phased return and it may be appropriate to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities.

11. Further information

The government has more information in relation to the different scenarios for employees requesting time off.

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