Specialist HR and Employment Solicitor, Sarah Buxton discusses the best way to structure career breaks for employees.
As practices continue to experience difficulties recruiting and retaining good staff, it’s important to consider what benefits you can offer that might encourage existing employees to stay and new ones to join the practice. There are several benefits that could prove attractive and, post pandemic, career breaks have been requested by a number of staff.
People want a work-life balance and to take care of themselves. As an employer you can help your team achieve this by looking after their wellbeing. There are no specific laws surrounding career breaks. It is completely up to the employer what they put in place to cover this. However, I would always advise making sure there is a written policy in place. This ensures parties know what to expect and are aware of their obligations.
One of the things the policy should include is notice periods. For example, how much notice an employee needs to give before they take a career break? Also, how much notice should the employee give before they return to work? The policy should also set out how to apply for a career break and the length of time they can take. In addition to this, it would need to make clear whether the usual terms and conditions of their contract would continue during the break.
There is no guarantee that employees can be allowed to take a career break, and there may be circumstances where it cannot be granted. This should be made clear in the policy. It should also set out the considerations that you as an employer will need to take into account when assessing whether you can agree to an individual’s request for a career break. As an employer, you are not obliged to say yes to career breaks. However, you do need to make sure that when you’re considering them, you are seen to be fair and equitable.
Career breaks can aid retention
When deciding whether you’re going to agree to a career break, it’s worth bearing in mind that they are really useful. They can be a way of retaining an individual who may have valuable skills, knowledge and understanding of your business . If they were to hand in their notice and leave, there would be no obligation for them to return to the workplace in the future. Whereas a career break allows them to go off with the intention of returning to the practice at a later date. Career breaks are great for employees of long standing who may have joined when they were quite young, and decide they want to go travelling. Without a career break policy which has been promoted to staff, they may feel the only option they have is to resign, despite the fact they really want to be able to come back after their travels. With the policy in place, you would be able to retain them as an employee.
Others may want a break to study. Granting a break to help them train and develop would single you out as a supportive employer. In addition to enhancing your reputation as a good employer, allowing a career break for further study would allow you to reap the benefits of that training and development when they return. So, they can be of benefit to the business too.
However, there are several issues that need to be examined before allowing the employee to take the break.
The first is the purpose of the career break. It may be that the individual is confused about their rights. For example, an individual may request a career break when what they really want is flexible working, or some leave under family friendly rights. If they need to take some leave to look after their children, then this would not be a career break. It would fall under different legislation such as parental leave.
The length of the absence would also need to be considered. It may not be advisable for someone to take a career break lasting several years. A business can change a great deal in that period of time, and it may not be wise to guarantee an employee could return to their job after such a long break. Also, depending on your policy, they may still be accruing their annual leave and other rights during that period of time, which would represent a cost to you.
Their performance record should also be taken into account. A career break is meant to be a benefit so it may not be something that you wish to grant to someone with disciplinary or performance issues. You may also wish to limit how many breaks an individual can have for the sake of continuity within the business.
Operational needs come first
The operational needs of the business are paramount and career breaks may be something which larger dental practices may find easier to provide and promote. Smaller practices may not be able to offer this benefit because of the operational needs of the business. However, there may be occasions when this has to be balanced with the need to retain skills and knowledge. If a practice manager requested a career break, their knowledge of the business may be so great, that if they were to ask for a career break of three months, it may be worthwhile agreeing to it as the cost and time involved in training somebody to the same standard outweighs providing the career break.
And finally, you will need to consider the ability to arrange cover. Depending on the operational needs of the practice, this is something that you may not be able to put in place, therefore you may have to reject the career break.
So, to summarise, there is no legal obligation for you to offer career breaks. However, if it is something you wish to consider, it’s good to start by having a written policy in place, introducing this at a team meeting, and making sure everybody knows their obligations if they wish to take advantage of it.
Sarah specialises in acting exclusively for dentists, dental managers and dental practice owners in all aspects of HR and employment law and is a partner in Buxton Coates Solicitors.
Sarah advises dental practices on managing and motivating their staff, dealing with sickness absence, assisting with making changes to employment contracts and, if needed, how to bring the employment relationship to an end.