In the UK, all employees have the right to take "reasonable" time off to deal with emergencies involving a dependant. This is known as dependants' leave. Whether or not this is paid is at the discretion of the employer.
In addition to dependants' leave, since 2003, employees are entitled to request flexible working to look after their disabled child. The Work and Families Act 2006 extended the right for carers to request flexible working in respect of caring for adults. To qualify as a carer, you must either:
- have a child under six, or a disabled child under 18; or
- care for a spouse, civil partner, partner (who you live with), relative or live with the adult in need of care.
The right to request time off work is just that: the right to request, not the right to have your request accepted. It is at the employer's discretion to consider the request and accept or deny it. A carer can make one request a year that should be in writing, confirm their eligibility and set out their proposed working pattern and how it will or will not affect their job.
Whilst both dependants' leave and the right to request flexible working provide some recourse for employees who are carers, it is regularly suggested that carers are not afforded sufficient protection and flexibility in terms of how their caring responsibilities might affect their employment. Carers can bring qualities, skills and values to the workplace that some other employees may lack and employers may miss out on talent if carers do not apply for or stay in jobs due to their caring responsibilities.
Earlier this year, the government launched a consultation about the provision of unpaid leave for carers. Approximately 5 million people in the UK provide unpaid care. The government has recognised that carers face particular challenges in terms of balancing their career and caring responsibilities which may warrant new employment rights, particularly female carers who are disproportionately impacted as women are the main providers of unpaid care. Many employers recognise that a healthy work life balance can reap benefits in the workplace, particularly in terms of staff morale. When employees feel that their personal circumstances and responsibilities are appreciated by their employer, they might well be more loyal and productive employees.
Amongst other questions, the consultation sought views on:
- how to best design a new entitlement to one week's unpaid leave to support employees who are carers;
- the definition of "carer";
- how the leave could be taken;
- the notice requirements for taking carer leave;
- the qualifying criteria to be met; and
- the costs and benefits to both employers and employees.
Under the proposals, carers would be entitled to one week of unpaid leave each year to allow them to provide care flexibly during regular working hours. This right would be in addition to existing entitlements outlined above and could help carers balance work and caring responsibilities better. The consultation closed on 3 August. We look forward to seeing the developments.