Last reviewed 3 November 2023

Following a relationship break-up, the Italian prime minister announced that she was taking a day’s leave. Relationship break-ups can be a distressing time and impact on an individual’s mental and emotional health. They can also raise practical issues, such as moving house, separating finances and organising childcare. But does this mean employers should be giving heartbreak leave? In this feature, Croner-i employment law researcher and writer, Stacie Cheadle, looks at the concept of heartbreak leave, whether it is legally required and what an employer’s options are.

Heartbreak leave and the law

In the UK, there is no statutory right to take leave following a relationship break-up. There are however other forms of leave that may be relevant, depending on the impact on the individual and their life. These can include:

  • time off for dependants. If the break-up is sudden, and causes pre-arranged childcare to fall through, an employee may need to take a short time away from work whilst they make alternative arrangements for their children or other dependants. This leave should not be used to provide long-term care. It is only to deal with an emergency situation which in this example is the loss of childcare. This leave is unpaid, although employers may choose to use their discretion to pay for it. Where this is the case, that discretion should be exercised fairly and consistently across the workforce

  • annual leave. An employee may take annual leave to deal with the fall-out of the break-up. However, employers do not have to accept a request if it is short notice or would cause significant disruption to their business. The normal holiday rules would be applied in these circumstances, although the request may be treated sympathetically, given the circumstances

  • sick leave. Should the employee be so affected by the break-up that they become ill, they may need to take a period of sick leave. The usual rules would apply to this, so the employee would need to be genuinely ill. As usual, if the absence lasts for over seven days, a fit note must be provided by a relevant medical professional.

Discretionary heartbreak leave

In the above, the legal options were outlined. Employers do however have the option of going beyond the statutory requirements and introducing other types of leave to support employees.

The Positive Parenting Alliance (PPA), a group of organisations and individuals, has called for employers to introduce discretionary leave to help employees manage divorce and family separation, in order to create a genuinely child-focused society and put in place better systems to ensure the long-term wellbeing of children when their parents separate.

Through its “HR initiative”, it encourages employers to implement policies that are specifically designed for those going through divorce or separation.

The PPA argues that businesses have a critical role in supporting families, including those going through separation or divorce. However, in a survey it carried out in January 2023, only 9% of respondents reported that their employer had a specific policy that they could turn to.

Failing to address this can have a major impact on individual performance and ability to work at all. Other findings of the PPA survey were:

  • over 90% said that their work performance was impacted in some way when they went through a divorce

  • 95% reported that their mental health at work suffered

  • 70% admitted to being less efficient at work

  • 39% took time off as a result of the separation

  • 12% stopped working due to the separation.

Implementing support for employees going through divorce and separation

The PPA HR initiative has been running since January 2023. Already, large employers such as NatWest Group, Vodafone, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Tesco, Asda, Unilever and Metro Bank have signed up to it. In doing this, they are committing their business to recognising divorce and separation as a major life event and taking steps to support their employees going through this.

The most straightforward way to demonstrate this is through the development of a specific policy, that outlines the options available to employees and how their employer will support them. The benefit of doing it this way is to create a central source of information that employees can access at will, rather than having to try and seek out what is available within their workplace, which can be difficult without a policy. It is also an advert for what is available; some employees may not even realise their employer can support them for this.

Final thoughts

Whether or not an employer decides to introduce a formal policy allowing for leave due to divorce, separation or heartbreak is down to the individual business. There are benefits from doing so. An employee is more likely to be committed to a business that has supported them through a difficult life period, and the potential for reduced performance and productivity as a result of the break-up is minimised. This addition to an existing or new wellbeing offering may well be appreciated by employees within the business.

On the other hand, some might argue that this is not an area employers should become involved in. Whatever position is taken, all employees should be treated fairly and consistently. Having a policy on the matter is one way to ensure this happens throughout the business.