Last reviewed 14 January 2014

In the second of three articles about time off work, Val Moore looks at how employers may, at their discretion, allow additional time off over and above the legal requirements (which will be the subject of the separate article on statutory time off).

Whether this additional time off is paid or unpaid is at the discretion of the employer.

Employers may consider discretionary leave in a range of circumstances, including:

  • extended holidays

  • sabbaticals

  • bereavement

  • compassionate leave

  • religious festivals

  • fertility treatment

  • medical and dental appointments

  • territorial army/reservists.

Extended holidays and sabbaticals

Every employee is entitled to a minimum period of paid leave per year, although some employers offer more. Sometimes, for example, there may be instances where someone wishes to visit family in Australia for a period of two months, where additional leave would be required. Another example would be where someone has used their entitlement, but then needs additional leave for something unforeseen.

A sabbatical is extended absence usually to enhance the career of the individual in order to achieve something. Sabbaticals are typically to fulfill some goal, eg writing a book or travelling extensively for research. Time away can be up to a year, sometimes more.

Bereavement and compassionate leave

The “time off for dependants” legislation allows unpaid leave where a dependant has died. However, this can be of a short duration, or might not apply where the deceased is not a “dependant”.

Compassionate leave can cover a wide variety of circumstances, including:

  • bereavement

  • serious illness or injury (to another person)

  • marital problems and breakdown

  • family problems

  • personal problems (ie home wrecked by flood or fire).

Religion, belief and festivals

While there is no statutory right to bereavement leave, failure to allow an employee time off work when the employee suffers a loss may lead to a claim of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) guide Religion or Belief and the Workplace considers the implications of failing to accommodate a request for bereavement leave. Listing the main religions in the UK, it gives examples of the requirements that must be observed following bereavement.

For example, in Hinduism, following a cremation, close relatives will observe a 13-day mourning period, during which time they are required to remain at home.

In the UK, the main public holidays are around Christian festivals; other religions have other festival dates. The employer may stipulate that such absences should be from annual leave entitlement, but may also grant discretional leave.

Time off work for fertility treatment (IVF)

Improvements in medical science mean that employers may be faced with an employee who requires time off to undergo fertility or in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment or to support their partner.

Employees undergoing IVF treatment could be required to take annual leave. However, an employer may wish to provide additional discretionary leave. It should also be noted that an employee who is undergoing or recovering from IVF treatment will be entitled to sick pay if she presents a medical certificate stating that she is not fit to work.

Employers offering discretionary leave should bear in mind that:

  • a medical examination to discover the cause of an employee's infertility can last from months to years, and it is also very difficult to forecast the length of time that an employee may undergo IVF treatment

  • the amount of time off from work that an employee takes while undergoing a cycle of IVF treatment will vary on an individual basis, eg employees may be unfit to work after undergoing such treatment because they are suffering from its side-effects.

Employers may also want to explore flexible working options to see if the employee can undergo treatment outside of core hours and make up the time another day.

Time off work for medical and dental appointments

While there is no statutory right to time off work for medical or dental appointments (except for antenatal care), many employers allow employees to make appointments during work time, as long as the appointments are made at times that are reasonably convenient to the organisation and, where appropriate, time lost is made up.

Where the employer operates flexible working hours, or employees work part-time, it may be expected that medical or other appointments are arranged outside core/working hours.

Employers may decide that appointments for cosmetic surgery must be arranged outside working hours or taken as annual leave. However, employees who are undergoing or recovering from cosmetic surgery will be entitled to statutory sick pay (or, as the case may be, contractual sick pay) if they present a medical certificate that states they are not fit to work.

Time off work for territorial duties

There is no statutory right for employees to have time off to undertake territorial or reserve force duties. However, an employer is free to come to an agreement with the employee concerned on arrangements for time off.

In July 2013, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond published a White Paper in response to a consultation on the future of the UK’s Reserve Forces. Part of the paper deals with those aspects of the proposals that relate to the employment relationship. The Government has pledged that it will “make employing reservists easier and more attractive and provide appropriate recognition of the contribution those employers make”.

It is not clear from the White Paper when these proposals will be implemented.

In brief

Employers should have a policy on discretionary leave to ensure that a consistent, non-discriminatory approach is taken when employees request additional leave. Some points to consider are:

  • the types of situations that would qualify for bereavement or compassionate leave

  • any qualifying length of service required

  • the number of days off that may be taken under each policy

  • whether the leave is paid or unpaid

  • where leave is paid, that it will be paid at the employee’s basic rate of pay

  • the definition of “immediate family”.