Under the UK system, parents and adoptive parents have a legal right to unpaid parental leave, as long as they have been with their employer for a year or more. This can be a fantastic benefit for families, and is often underused because of a lack of understanding.
Here I set out the key points to consider if you are interested in taking parental leave.
Understand your rights
Up to eighteen weeks of leave can be taken for each child, which must be used before the child’s fifth birthday – apart from in the case of children with disabilities, under which circumstances parents have until the child turns eighteen to use their leave entitlement. If a child is adopted, the leave should be taken within five years from the date of adoption. Leave should be taken in blocks of a week – as opposed to single days – unless the employer agrees to other arrangements, and is limited to four weeks per year.
To take parental leave, you should ask your boss or HR department, specifying the length of time you wish to take off work, and giving at least 21 days’ notice. You might be asked to make a request in writing – and setting out your requirements in a letter or email can be a good idea to make sure everything is clear and to reduce the opportunity for confusion.
Make it win-win
Provided you have parental responsibility for a child under the age of five (or eighteen in the case of disabled children), you have a legal entitlement to unpaid parental leave. However, your boss can ask for your leave to be postponed under certain circumstances – for example, when the leave would cause unacceptable disruption to business.
Setting out your thoughts of how your work could be covered without you could smooth the way to getting the leave you want. Think about who could step up into your role, how your duties could be altered or redistributed, and how your absence could be a positive influence on the business, for example, by allowing another colleague to take on a more responsible role for their own development.
If your business is unable to grant you the leave you require, they must notify you within seven days of your request in writing, and propose a new start date for the leave, which is within six months of your initial request. Not all managers are experienced in dealing with parental leave requests, but further details can be found through the UK government website, or ACAS.
Have a financial plan
To make the most of your leave once you have secured it, you need a financial plan. As a general rule, leave is unpaid – although your employment status and terms remain unchanged during your absence, giving you the security of a job to return to after the leave period finishes. Check with your boss the status of your other benefits during your leave period. You can make your leave financially viable with advance planning – come up with a budget for your leave period, and make saving for it a priority during the months before you plan to take time off. You will naturally make savings during your leave anyway, without the costs of commuting or paid childcare, and so with careful planning your leave can be a benefit for your family without being too much of a strain on the purse strings.
Choose your timing
Picking the perfect time for you to take parental leave is the best way to get the most from the experience. Some parents choose to add some parental leave onto maternity or paternity leave, to extend the period of time with their new baby. Others take the leave later, and the time could be well spent to help settle your child into new childcare or schooling arrangements, to support your partner to return to work, facilitate a visit home to see relatives if they live overseas, or cover school holidays when childcare can be difficult to arrange.
There is further good news for parents expecting to have (or adopt) a child after April 1 2015, as the law will change further to allow shared parental leave and pay. This offers greater flexibility in the leave offered to parents, which means that paid maternity and paternity leave can be shared between partners for their child’s first year. If you are expecting after April 2015, then your employer should be able to give you details about how the scheme might work for you, and this greater flexibility will certainly allow more parents to get the most from their parental leave entitlements.