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Guide to employee absences in the UK

Staff absence management is one of a payroll manager's most time-consuming tasks and it can be challenging. There are a number of different types of employee absences - from sick pay to bereavement leave, paternity leave to holidays, the list is long.

As a payroll or HR professional, it’s vital that you familiarise yourself with the different forms of absenteeism in the UK and laws and regulations surrounding them. Above all, this will help you create an absence management policy so that both you and your employees are protected and supported.

In this guide, we’re going to cover the most common types of employee absence in the UK so you can understand how to deal with them efficiently.

    What is a leave of absence?

    A general definition for a leave of absence describes it as a period of time where a worker maintains employee status whilst taking time away from work. While the government sets out general laws for leaves of absence, individual companies may also make their own policies to manage time off.

    For example, by law almost all employees are entitled to 28 days paid holiday per year. This is known as statutory leave entitlement, or annual leave. Yet, there are occasions when employees may need unforeseen or extended time off. This may be due to the death of a loved one, an illness, pregnancy or other personal reasons.

      Types of employee absence

      Let’s take a look at the different types of employment leave below:


      One of the most common types of employee absenteeism, sickness is when an employee suffers from an illness or injury. More often than not this is unforeseen, unless the employee has a planned medical procedure.

      In the UK, an employee can take time off work if they’re ill. Yet, they must give their employer proof of the illness if they’re away from work for more than seven days. This proof is usually in the form of a ‘fit note’ or ‘sick note’.

      A worker may ask to take their paid holiday for the time they’re off work sick if they do not qualify for sick pay. In this case, they will be paid Statutory Sick Pay. However, they will not receive this if they don’t qualify for Statutory Sick Pay or are being paid occupational sick pay.


      Another of the most common types of employee absence is for holidays. This is when employees take a certain number of days off work to travel, relax or generally take a break from work. Normally, this is agreed in advance with the employer.

      While employees are legally entitled to 28 days annual leave per year, companies will have their own policies regarding this. This is usually negotiated with the worker before they start a job. For instance, some employers offer more time off as the length of the worker’s service goes on, or they may ask that they take holidays at certain times.

      Travel disruption

      In some cases, employees may be late for work, or unable to attend at all due to travel disruptions. This could be caused by bad weather, unreliable public transport services, breakdowns or cancelled flights for example.

      As a result, you may want to think about including some information about this in your absence policy. Whether you choose to give paid or unpaid time off in these circumstances, make sure this is clear and that you inform your employees.

      Maternity, paternity and adoption leave

      These types of leave are typically planned absences for workers to welcome a new child into their family.

      Typically, women receive 52 weeks of maternity leave, while men receive up to two weeks. However, this is changing and it is becoming more common, and accepted, for parents to take shared parental leave. In this case, they can divide up to 50 weeks between themselves.

      Adoption leave works in the same way as parental leave, but workers must give proof of the adoption or surrogacy, if you require it.

      Bereavement or compassionate leave

      When an employee suffers an unexpected loss, they may require time off work known as bereavement or compassionate leave. Typically, this is an unforeseen request for leave, which workers may need to come into effect immediately.

      While there is no statutory bereavement leave in the UK, employers may have this in their employee absence policy. For example, they may decide to allow their workforce a certain amount of paid or unpaid time off in this event.

      Jury service

      In some cases, the Courts may summon employees for jury duty. In this case, they may be away from the office for several weeks. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, individuals must complete this service.

      Employers have to let workers have time off work, but may ask that the jury service is delayed if the workers’ absence has serious effects on the business.


      Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are now familiar with furlough. It is a temporary leave of absence from work. This may be due to an economic crisis within a company, or matters affecting the entire country.

      This acts as a leave that employers temporarily provide, while keeping employees on the payroll without them working at all. In this case, the length of leave of absence will depend on the company’s ability to get back to business.

      Personal appointments

      Workers may need to take leave of absence for medical appointments. These can include the doctors, dentist, physiotherapists and counselling amongst other reasons.

      While there are statutory rights for this type of leave, companies normally grant it to their workers. It is an important aspect to include within your employee absence policy.


      Some members of your workforce may wish to take a sabbatical. This is a long, voluntary career break. Individuals may choose to learn new skills, study abroad, travel or use the time for other personal reasons.

      Workers plan this leave of absence with employers in advance before their sabbatical begins. There are no laws that deal with career breaks. It is down to the employer to make an agreement with the employees based on their employee absence policy.

      Time off in lieu (TOIL)

      Some employers give workers time off instead of paying for overtime, known as ‘time off in lieu’. For instance, a worker may choose to work extra hours and build up enough to take it as paid time off at a later date.

      Not enforced by law, it is the company's decision to choose whether to enforce this policy or not. Before creating your absence policy, you may want to decide if you will offer employees TOIL or pay overtime instead.

      AWOL or lateness

      AWOL, or absence without leave, happens when an employee simply doesn’t come to work. They haven’t warned you in advance, or called you on the day to let you know. It’s your choice how to deal with this. For example, you may wish to choose disciplinary action. However, be sure to have this within your policy.

      Similarly, if employees are late to work and this continues, you may want to consider disciplinary action. Above all, it’s vital that you have this included within your policy framework.

      Exceptional circumstances

      We cannot always predict what life will throw at us. For exceptional circumstances, such as a burglary, a fire, flooding or similar, you should aim to have a policy in place to deal with these absences - paid or unpaid.

        How to create a good absence management policy

        There’s a lot of information to take on when considering employee leaves of absence. To help you manage this, you might want to consider developing an absence management policy.

        This policy should clearly set out what is expected from both the employer and employee in the case of an employee taking time off from work. If you don’t already have a policy in place, you can begin with the following recommendations regarding what to include.

        • Reporting absences - state who the worker should make contact with and when.
        • Provide clear details of sick pay - this should involve legal and contractual information.
        • Request sick notes - you can ask employees to provide you with a sick note after seven consecutive days of sick leave. Make sure to specify if you will action this in your policy so that workers are aware.
        • Disciplinary action - make it clear when you’ll enforce disciplinary measures for unplanned leave.
        • Flexible working conditions - you might want to consider allowing your workforce to work from home. This can help to reduce stress-related absences as it gives people a better work/life balance.
        • Keeping track of absences - include how payroll managers are going to process and keep track of leave.

          Digital staff absence management

          Now you’ve got your policy in place, you may want to consider absence management software. This helps payroll managers with many aspects of leave such as reporting, tracking, accepting and rejecting time off.

          Our digital absence management system allows you to follow up on employee absences in a streamlined, time efficient and cost effective way. Not only will our digital solutions empower your employees to request and manage their leave personally, but they also enable line managers to get a clear picture of their team’s leave. This will make reporting back to your HR team a lot easier and help to process payroll smoothly.

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