Time off for medical appointments and family emergencies

November 27, 2008

Employees will need to take time off from work from time to time for a variety of different reasons, other than planned annual leave. In a previous article we considered time off for public duties; in this article we focus on time off for medical appointments and time off for family emergencies, and we look at the issues that may arise for institutions and how these may be managed.

Medical appointments

In general there is no statutory right for employees to take time off work to attend medical appointments such as visits to the doctor, dentist or hospital and, subject to any contractual provisions, time off in these circumstances is at the discretion of the institution. However, there are some exceptions. Female staff who are pregnant are entitled to take reasonable time off to attend related medical appointments and antenatal classes where medically advised. In the case of employees covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, although they do not have a specific right to take reasonable time off to attend medical appointments, institutions are under a duty to prevent them suffering less favourable treatment at work because of their disability and to make reasonable adjustments where appropriate, which can include appropriate time off to attend medical appointments.

An issue that can arise is where employees arrange medical appointments mid-morning or in the afternoon, rather that at the beginning or end of the day when it is likely to be more convenient for the institution. This can cause difficulties not only in terms of covering the absence but also in terms of the amount of time off that may be required, taking into account such things as travel, as this may significantly impinge on the working day. In these circumstances managers are entitled to request that a more convenient appointment is made where one is available, and where in the circumstances it is considered appropriate to do so. It is important to recognise, however, that there are likely to be times where more urgent appointments or appointments at short notice may be required, and institutions should look at each circumstance individually. Managers will want to strike a balance between managing time off work for medical appointments appropriately and effectively while at the same time being flexible to staff. Specific provisions in sickness absence/absence management policies will be helpful in order to facilitate this.

Another problem that can arise is where a particular employee is taking a large amount of time off work to attend appointments with his or her doctor. In this situation institutions could consider seeking a medical report from the treating doctor or arranging a referral to occupational health in line with any sickness absence/absence management policy. Such policies often provide the right to refer employees in appropriate circumstances.

Time off for family emergencies

Employees have a statutory right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work in order to deal with family emergencies involving dependants. This is the case irrespective of their length of service or contractual status. It is important to emphasise that the right extends only to situations involving dependants of the employee; it does not provide a right to take time off for other emergencies that may arise at home, however serious they may appear to be at the time. Furthermore, the right applies only where time off is necessary in the prescribed situations set out below, and where the employee notifies the institution of the reason for absence and how long he or she expects to be away (unless it is not reasonably practicable to do so):

1. to provide assistance if a dependant falls ill, gives birth, is injured or assaulted;

2. to make arrangements for the provision of care for a dependant who is ill or injured;

3. in consequence of the death of a dependant;

4. because of the unexpected disruption or termination of arrangements for the care of a dependant; and

5. to deal with an unexpected incident which involves a child of the employee during school (or another educational establishment’s) hours.

A “dependant” is defined as a spouse, civil partner, a child or parent of the employee (but not a grandparent) or a person who lives in the same household (except tenants, lodgers, boarders and other employees), and in certain cases includes those who reasonably rely on the employee. There is no definition of what “reasonable” time off means, and you will need to look at each situation individually.

Diane Gilhooley is HR expert in the education team at Eversheds.

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