Your rights at work as a carer

If you have worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks, you are entitled to request flexible working. This may enable you to work from home or organise new working hours, for example. Flexible working arrangements can help you find a balance between work and caring responsibilities. If your employer refuses your request, you may be able to appeal the decision.

The law also protects a carer’s right to take unpaid time off to look after someone in an emergency.

Legislation protects people who experience discrimination because they are linked or associated with a disabled person (cancer is classed as a disability). For example, it would be unlawful if a carer was refused promotion because of concerns that they would be unable to give sufficient attention to the job. Under the law, carers are also protected against harassment and victimisation.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) can provide advice on your employment rights. In Northern Ireland you could contact the Labour Relations Agency.

Your legal rights as a working carer

You have certain rights at work that may help make it easier for you to keep working while you are caring. These include the right to ask for flexible working arrangements, or to take time off work in an emergency.

Flexible working arrangements

By law, anyone in the UK who has worked for an employer for at least 26 weeks has the right to ask for flexible working. This means working a different pattern to the way you work now. You can apply for a permanent or temporary change to your terms and conditions.

You can also make an informal request for flexible working arrangements. This means it is not requested under the law on flexible working. This option could be useful if you want to make a temporary or small change to the way you work now, and need the change to happen quickly. It may also be helpful if you want to try out a change before making it permanent.

Flexible working arrangements can make the difference between carrying on working or leaving. These arrangements could include the following:

  • Working from home.
  • Flexible start or finish times.
  • Compressed working hours – this means working your normal number of hours but over fewer days. For example fitting in a five-day working week by working longer hours over four.
  • Annualised working hours – this is where you work the hours you are contracted for per month or year in a flexible way.
  • Job-sharing or working part-time.
  • Flexible holidays to fit in with alternative care arrangements.

Requesting flexible working

By law, you do not have an automatic right to flexible working. It is just your right to ask for it. But employers have a duty to deal with requests in a reasonable manner. An employer can refuse a request for flexible working. They have to give good reasons for doing so, and you can appeal the decision (see below).

You have to make your request in writing and it must be dated. Your employer may have a specific form you can use.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and Carers UK have leaflets on the right to request flexible working that explain how to go about making a request.

Your employer must complete the process within three months. If your employer has more than one request from staff for flexible working, by law they should consider each case on its own merits.

By law, you can only make one request a year for flexible working. You can make other requests to your employer (just not under the law) if your circumstances change.

If your employer refuses your request

An employer can refuse a request for flexible working if it is not in the best interests of the business. This might be if it would be too expensive or could affect the performance of the business.

If your employer refuses your request, you may be given the right to appeal. You may have some new information that would help them reconsider their decision. It is a good idea to get advice from your union representative (if you belong to a union), a staff representative or your HR department.

If you are not given the right to appeal, you could suggest involving ACAS, or the Labour Relations Agency in Northern Ireland, to help you and your employer discuss the possible options. Or you could raise a complaint (grievance) with your employer.

Some situations may involve finding the middle ground. For example, your employer may agree to you working from home for a few days a week, rather than working from home full-time.

Time off in an emergency

Everyone in the UK has the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to look after dependants in an emergency. This is called time off for dependants.

In England, Scotland and Wales, it is covered by:

  • the Employment Rights Act 1996 (as amended by the Employment Relations Act 1999).

In Northern Ireland, the laws are:

  • the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996
  • the Employment Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1999.

A dependant could be:

  • a mother, father, son, daughter, spouse or civil partner
  • anyone who lives with you, but is not a tenant, lodger, boarder or employee
  • someone who would reasonably rely on you to help them if they become ill or need you to make care arrangements for them.

Possible emergencies can include:

  • a breakdown in care arrangements (when someone who usually provides care cannot do it)
  • the person you care for becomes more unwell or has an accident
  • when you need to make longer-term care arrangements, for example when the person you are caring for needs more care.

You do not need to have been in your job for a certain amount of time before you can take time off work in an emergency. The law does not state how much time you can take – it will depend on the circumstances. You must tell your employer the reason you are absent as soon as possible after the emergency has happened, and how long you expect to be off work for.

Time off for dependants is likely to be unpaid, unless your employer’s policies say otherwise. Your employer may have a policy for other types of leave for carers, or may be open to discussing leave arrangements.

Some options could be:

  • carers’ leave (paid or unpaid)
  • compassionate leave
  • borrowing holiday days from next year or buying additional days
  • career breaks and sabbaticals (usually unpaid).

Protecting you from discrimination

At work, the Equality Act (in England, Scotland and Wales) and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) (in Northern Ireland) can, in certain circumstances, protect carers from:

  • direct disability discrimination
  • harassment
  • victimisation.

Direct disability discrimination

This is when you are treated less fairly than somebody else because you are associated with someone who has cancer. The person with cancer is protected by the law because of their disability.

Direct disability discrimination includes situations where, because you are a carer, you are:

  • not offered a job
  • refused promotion, for example because your employer is worried you won’t be focused on the job
  • given less favourable employment terms (for example, lower pay).


This is when you experience unwanted behaviour because you are associated with someone who has cancer. This behaviour may cause you to feel intimidated, degraded or offended.

Whether or not the unwanted behaviour is harassment will depend on how you view the behaviour, and whether it was reasonable for it to have made you feel that way.


This is when you are treated unfairly because you have done, or will do (or someone thinks you have done or will do), something that the law protects. This includes making a complaint about discrimination or harassment under the Equality Act or the DDA.

If you feel your employer is not being reasonable

It is important to try to sort out any problems by talking with your employer. But if this does not work, you may want to think about making a formal complaint (or grievance). Your employer should have a policy that explains how you do this. Ask a union representative or staff representative for further advice.

If you find it difficult to settle the issue with your employer, you could contact ACAS, or the Labour Relations Agency in Northern Ireland.