Since the outbreak of Covid-19 we’ve witnessed a huge shift in the mentality of employers regarding work commitments and childcare needs. Whether it be more empathy as we all struggled to fight against the pandemic, or a realisation that actually, life is too short… We don’t know why, but we’ve seen a change.
Employees may have become more settled with a better work-life balance. Although we hope that employers will continue to support a better home life for their staff we are anticipating that some employers may push back and prefer a more traditional style of a set working pattern.
In this article we discuss the potential HR Headaches which may arise as employees want to maintain the balance of priorities in their life, in particular in regards to children.
We will consider how employers may wish to continue supporting employees with children as well as providing an overview of employee rights, so that employers can be fully equipped to deal with queries.
Finally, we will recap the problems employers face if the work-life balance for their employees is not quite right.
Parents who have 1 year of continuous employment and a child under 18 can make a request for unpaid parental leave for the purpose of caring for a child. An employee in this situation can take up to 18 weeks unpaid leave per child in maximum blocks of 4 weeks per child per year. The employee must make a request with 21 days notice.
The time off may be used for:
- Spending more time with young children
- Looking for schools
- Settling a child into childcare arrangements
- Looking after a child during school holidays
- Enabling the family to spend more time together for example, by taking the child to see their grandparents
If the employee requests leave without a valid reason or lies about the reason, the employer can consider disciplinary action. Employees will continue to accrue the statutory minimum annual leave during any period of unpaid parental leave.
Employers should support employees in their requests for unpaid time off for parental leave and in fact, any action which subjects the employee to a detriment (including dismissal) could be very costly to employers.
Employers are able to postpone a request for leave in some circumstances for up to 6 months but this can create unhappiness for the employee. We find that most employees recognise the need to balance the business against their own needs and after a thorough discussion, both parties can reach an agreed timescale for when the leave can be taken.
Emergency time off
Employees have a further statutory right to emergency time off for the care of a dependant. This right is to deal with unforeseen events and although it can apply to other dependants here we will discuss in relation to children only. Employees must inform the employer when they take the time off and a failure to do so can lead to legitimate disciplinary action.
Any time taken off to deal with an emergency situation is unpaid. Employees have a right to this time off, they do not need permission. Employers however are allowed to monitor the amount of time off and conduct return-to-work meetings with the employee to establish exactly what the emergency was.
Employers are also entitled to find out if there was any other family member who could have dealt with the emergency. For example, if parent number 1 is not at work on Mondays but your employee (parent number 2) takes the day off for emergency reasons as their child has been sent home from nursery – the employer is entitled to question why Parent 1 could not collect them or look after them. There may be legitimate reasons so it is important to keep the lines of conversation open and discuss the whole situation with the employee.
Employees should keep their employer notified of how long they need to stay off work and aim to keep the time away from work as short as possible.
This emergency right is not a right to time off for a pre-planned dentist appointment or children’s sports day. All parties must remember it is time to deal with an emergency, unforeseen situation.
Similarly to an employee taking unpaid leave, one who exercises their right to emergency time off for the care of a dependant cannot be treated less favourably or dismissed because of it. They can be monitored and questioned as to the reasons for the absence and even disciplined if it was not genuine, but they cannot be treated differently if it was used under genuine circumstances.
Flexibility with childcare and contracts
No employer wants their employees to come crashing in after their start time looking dishevelled with their ties loose and breakfast in hand. To a certain degree, understanding your employee’s commitments outside of work and recognising that the nursery drop-off is only 5 minutes before they are due to start work can mean that you are able to accommodate their needs.
There is no need for all employees to start at the exact same time. If a start time of 9.10am means that your employee has time to do the nursery drop off and get themselves to work without a rush, why not change the hours to suit?
An employer and employee can discuss changes to working hours at any time. A variation to contract to facilitate childcare arrangements might mean that an employee starts a bit later, takes a shorter lunch break, or stays 10 minutes later at night but if you discuss the pressures they are facing outside of work you might be able to help resolve them.
As an employer, if you notice a team member struggling to juggle everything, our advice is to deal with it as soon as possible. A happy employee is a good employee. Why not find out if there is anything you could do to help? Acting on your concerns may even prevent employee burnout and avoid further disruption to the business if the employee needs to take time off to recover.
What can an employer do?
- Contract variations
- Thorough return to work meetings but don’t guilt trip an employee for a genuine emergency
- Recognise employee rights so as not to look surprised when they assert them
- Understand when you can say no to employee requests if the business cannot support them
- Communicate with staff
- Look out for distressed employees
- Educate on employee burnout
A happy, healthy workforce will, more often than not, be a productive workforce.
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