At some point, you may need to request an extended period of time off work. There are many reasons why we may need to take a “leave of absence” from a job. It might be due to a health problem, chronic stress, childcare, bereavement, family problems or to take a career break to pursue a hobby or study for a qualification.
But what exactly are the rules surrounding taking a leave of absence - and how do you go about requesting one?
Leave of absence in the UK is when an employee takes a period of time away from their primary job, but they remain employed by their company. It’s different to simply taking time off or taking annual leave, which is often a short-term break from work. Long-term absence is a leave of absence - and how long you can take, or if you can take it, can depend on your employer.
“Leave of absence can refer to someone taking their mandatory time off as dictated by UK law, but most often leave of absence refers to when an employee requests time off for a special circumstance that was not pre-planned for,” says Andrew Fennell, careers expert and Director at StandOut CV.
A leave of absence may be requested for various reasons, he says, including care for family members or dependents, jury service or the loss of a loved one and the processes involved with bereavement. For example, you may receive time off to mourn or attend a funeral, but a leave of absence may be granted if you need more time to handle the estate.
You may also take a leave of absence for child care — typically in emergency situations, a career break or for medical reasons.
There are UK laws specific to leaves of absence for the support of dependents and statutory sick pay. By law, anyone classed as an employee has the right to take time off work to help someone who depends on them in an unexpected event. However, time off for a dependant is unpaid, unless your workplace states otherwise.
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If you need a leave of absence because of an illness, you may need to provide a fit note, depending on how much time off is needed. This is an official statement from a doctor giving their medical opinion on a person’s fitness for work. Additionally, an employee’s contract may detail how long sick pay can last, the rate of sick pay and any other specific rules regarding sickness leave.
Each workplace might have different rules on what they see as acceptable reasons for absence and what they will pay. Ultimately, unless your reason for leave is protected under the law - such as maternity leave - whether you can take extended time off depends on your employer.
Here’s how to request a leave of absence
Before speaking to your boss, it’s important to check your company’s policies and your contract to see what you are entitled to. Then, organise a one-to-one with your employer to talk about your options.
“Arrange a meeting with a supervisor to discuss the leave of absence and what options might be available to you. You can gauge how hostile or cooperative the company may be toward your request in this meeting too,” says Fennell.
Depending on the reason for your leave of absence request, you may need to present your case carefully. If you want a career break - for example, to do some training - you may need to outline why this will benefit your employer in the long-run.
“Make a written request, specifying the terms agreed with the supervisor - this will ideally be made some time in advance so that the company has time to prepare. Do this via email to keep a paper trail with timestamps in case anything goes wrong later,” Fennell advises.
“Offer some support during the period of absence, where possible, and ensure you have a good handover document before you leave so people can pick up where you left off.”
And if you can, speak to your colleagues to see who may be available to help support with your workload when you are gone. “Overall, you need to be honest as early as possible. Employers want their staff to work their best and will care if you need to take a leave of absence for health or personal reasons,” says Fennell.
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