· Features

Employees unaware of unpaid parental leave

Unpaid parental leave is available to staff with a year or more's tenure, in addition to annual holiday allowance

Working parents could be spending up to £1,800 a year unnecessarily on childcare as 41% are unaware of their legal right to take unpaid parental leave to care for their children, according to research from Crossland Employment Solicitors.

Unpaid parental leave is available to any employee who has been with the same employer for a year or more, in addition to their agreed annual holiday allowance. It can be taken for up to four weeks a year, in blocks of one week, to a maximum of 18 weeks for each child before they turn 18.

The researchers polled 1,500 working fathers and mothers with children under 18, and found that 41% of working mums and dads will be leaning on friends and family this Summer for childcare cover, while 27% will be spending up to £800 on holiday clubs alone.

For the entire year 57% will spend between £50 and £450 a week on childcare from nannies, nurseries or after school clubs, which works out to a saving of £200 to £1,800 a year for those parents who exert their right to four weeks' unpaid parental leave annually.

Many parents were worried about how their family responsibilities may affect their careers. Nearly half of men (47%) and 31% of women said they were concerned that taking unpaid leave, such as to care for a child or a sick family member, may have a negative impact. Four in 10 (39%) were concerned that taking extra unpaid time off, in addition to other statutory leave allowances, will be perceived negatively by their employer and colleagues.

Beverley Sunderland, managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors, said employers should be considering how to improve attitudes towards unpaid leave. “Employers need to be more open and transparent with workers about their unpaid leave entitlements as well as creating a culture that encourages employees to take leave rather than it being perceived as something that could damage their career,” she said. “Unpaid leave allows eligible parents time off to look after their child’s welfare, to spend more time with their children and the family, to look for new schools, or to settle children into new childcare arrangements. Their employment rights – like the right to pay, holidays and returning to a job – remain protected.”

She said that while there is no legal reason to inform staff of their rights, organisations should consider doing so anyway. “While there’s no obligation to advise employees of their right to unpaid parental leave, it is in the employer’s best interest to support working parents where it can,” she said.

Mubeen Bhutta, head of policy and campaigns for Working Families, told HR magazine that she has seen this issue before. “Parents who contact our advice service are often unaware of their right to take unpaid parental leave," she said. "This can be an important part of the picture for working parents making decisions about how best to balance their work and family life. Our research shows that employers who support their employees with the costs or practicalities of childcare can reap benefits in terms of both productivity and engagement.”