As an employee in the UK, you do have the right to take a reasonable amount of time off work to deal with an emergency involving a dependant. And the reality is that most employers will be understanding and compassionate about the need to take time off under those circumstances – as long as you’re reasonable, so are they. A dependant is a close family member who depends on you for care, so this also includes adults – for example your partner, spouse, parents or a disabled relative.
Strangely, there’s no set time limit on how much time you can take off. It really does depend on the situation, but your employer should give you a reasonable amount of time to deal with the situation and – this is the important part – to arrange appropriate care if it’s necessary, so you can return to work and meet your contractual obligations. Or in other words, you can take time off to make sure things are organised well enough for you to return to work.
What counts as an emergency?
- Illness, injury or assault – and this includes the effects of both mental and physical illnesses. They don’t have to be life-threatening, they could also be existing conditions that have deteriorated. So, for example, if your teenage child was mugged then you would be entitled to time off to comfort them.
- Having a baby – that’s a dependant having the child, not you. If that person is entirely dependant on you to provide transport to the hospital then you can take time off.
- Disruption of care arrangements – if a childminder or carer doesn’t turn up, or if your dependant’s nursing home or nursery closes suddenly, then you can take a reasonable amount of time off to arrange alternative care.
- Incidents involving children during school time – if your child needs you to attend the school for an appropriate level of circumstances (such as getting into a fight, being suspended, or being involved in an accident on a school trip), then you can take a reasonable amount of time off.
How often can I take time off?
There are no limits to how many times you can take time off to look after dependants. What’s important though, is that this kind of arrangement depends on everyone following the guidelines and respecting the definitions of ‘emergency situations’.
Your employer may want to talk to you about making alternative arrangements, if it’s felt that the absence is affecting your work. Your employer may also ask you to allocate part of your annual leave for longer absences. And, not unreasonably, you can’t take unplanned time off for an ‘emergency’ if you knew about the situation beforehand, i.e. you need to take your child for a hospital appointment. You can ask for parental leave instead.
Depending on your contract, your employer may not have to pay you while you’re absent in an emergency. You’ll need to check your contract or employee handbook to see what their rules are.
What to do if you need time off
Most employers will ask you to follow a specific set of guidelines, in terms of who to call, how, and when. Best practice in the absence of guidelines like that, is to let your employer know what the situation is, what’s happened (if you’re comfortable sharing the information), just as soon as it’s possible to do so. There may be emergency situations in which it’s not possible to ‘make the call’ first, but it is important to act responsibly and contact your employer as soon as you can.