Flexible working and time off

7 mins read

As a working parent, you may have a legal right to take time off in certain circumstances. You may also be able to request a change in your working week to help you juggle your work and caring responsibilities.

In this article

Flexible working

If you have worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks you normally have the right to apply to your employer for flexible working arrangements, for example a change to the times or hours you work or the option to work from home.

Employers must consider such requests seriously and are only able to refuse the request when there is a clear business reason.

Who is entitled to flexible working?

To be eligible to make a request for flexible working under the current provisions you must:

  • Have worked for your employer for 26 weeks on the date the application is made.
  • Not be an agency worker or member of the armed forces.
  • Not have made an application for flexible working in the past 12 months.

As long as you meet these tests you can ask for flexible working regardless of whether you have caring responsibilities or not.

How do I make a request for flexible working?

You should make your request in writing, making clear that it is a statutory request. You should also set out:

  • The desired change to your work pattern and when you would like this to start.
  • What the impact will be on your employer’s business and how you think this may be dealt with.
  • Whether a request has been made previously and if so when.
  • Date your request. 

If you are asking for a change in order to help you better care for your disabled child, we would recommend that you also make this clear in your written request along with details of the likely impact on your family life if your request is turned down. 

What should I do if my request is refused?

Check with your employer if they allow you to appeal. If not, write to them asking them to reconsider. You should also seek advice from a service specialising in employment advice such as ACAS or Working Families

Rules on how requests for flexible working are dealt with are different in Northern Ireland.

Parental leave

Parental leave gives parents the right to take time off work to look after their children. Parental leave is normally unpaid but some employers have more generous provisions. Check your contract of employment.

Who qualifies for parental leave?

To qualify for leave parents must have worked for an employer continuously for one year and must give at least 21 days’ notice. They must also use the leave time to care for their child.

Parents who qualify must be allowed at least 18 weeks unpaid leave for each child aged under 18, regardless of whether they are disabled or not.

Both parents have the right to parental leave so each can take up to 18 weeks leave per child, to be used before the child’s 18th birthday.

How can I take parental leave?

Normally you have to take parental leave in blocks of one week or more. However parents of a child on Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment can take leave a day at a time. This means you could use parental leave for regular hospital visits.

The maximum amount of leave a parent can take for any one child in one year is normally four weeks, but your employer can let you take a longer period of parental leave each year if they wish.

You must give at least 21 days’ notice. Your employer can ask you to postpone your leave for up to six months if it would cause disruption to their business. Seek further advice if this happens to you. You cannot be asked to postpone leave if you want to take it following the birth of a child or the placement of a child with you for adoption.

You can carry over any unused parental leave from one job to another.

Returning to work

If you take four weeks or fewer parental leave you are guaranteed returning to your same job. If you take more than four weeks and it is not reasonably possible for you to be allowed to return to your old job, you are entitled to a similar job with the same or better status as the previous one.

Time off for dependants

You can take time off work to deal with an emergency relating to a dependant. This could be a parent, partner, child, or someone for whom an individual has sole care.

Your employer cannot penalise you for taking dependants leave, as long as your reasons for taking this leave are genuine.

Any leave you take will be unpaid unless your contract of employment says otherwise. You do not have to have worked for any minimum amount of time, and you can apply from the first day of employment.

When can you take time off for a dependant?

You are allowed time off only to deal with emergencies or other unexpected events. For example if your dependant:

  • Is ill and needs your help to provide assistance or to make arrangements for the provision of care.
  • Is involved in an accident or assaulted.
  • Needs you to deal with an unexpected disruption or breakdown in care such as a childminder or nurse failing to turn up.
  • Goes into labour.
  • Dies, and you need to make funeral arrangements or attend the funeral.
  • Is involved in an unexpected incident at school that you need to deal with.

You cannot take dependants leave to deal with a situation that was foreseen or planned. In these situations, you would need to take parental leave (see above), annual leave or other any other available leave.

How much time off can I take?

Time off for dependants usually only covers the time taken to deal with the immediate event and to make alternative arrangements. It won’t cover you providing long term care yourself. For anything longer term you will need to use parental, annual or other leave. You must notify your employer of the reasons for your absence as soon as possible and tell them how long you expect to be absent.

There is no set time limit on the amount of time you can take but it must be reasonable in all the circumstances. Normally this will only be a day or two but this may vary depending on the individual circumstances. For example whether you have a partner or other family members who can help. Seek specialist employment advice from an organisation such as Working Families or ACAS if you think that you will need more than a day or two’s leave.

New rights to time off from 2024

The government have introduced a new Carer’s Leave Act. This is expected to come into force at some point in 2024 and will allow unpaid carers to take up to one week unpaid leave a year to meet their caring responsibilities. This will apply to all employees who are carers, regardless of how long they’ve been working for a company.

Carers will be able to take the unpaid leave in half or full days. The Act applies in England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland, where employment law is devolved.

Other leave

As an employee you may also be entitled to time off if you or your partner has either had a baby or adopted a child in the last year.