How can workplaces support parents of premature babies?

Kate Palmer, of Peninsula, explains what an employer should consider when parents are faced with the unexpected.

People experience an extremely difficult and worrying time when they become parents to babies who are premature or unwell.

It’s estimated that over 95,000 premature (born before 37 weeks) or unwell babies are born each year in the UK, making it highly likely that workplaces will employ a parent who will experience this situation.

What’s being done to support parents?

Manchester City Football Club recently made headlines for their sensitive and understanding treatment of their star midfielder David Silva. While many football clubs struggled with squad rotation over the congested fixture list in December, the midfielder had been noticeably absent. He recently revealed that the club had given him extended time off due to the extremely premature birth of his son, with the City boss saying that family is most important.  

Another employer, Waltham Forest Council, is supporting the Smallest Things Campaign (a charity promoting the good health of premature babies and their families), and will offer their employees an extra week’s maternity and paternity leave for each week that their premature baby spends in hospital.

The campaign has nearly 140,000 signatures and is urging the government to extend statutory leave for parents with premature babies. Alongside the campaign, the Maternity and Paternity (Premature Birth) Bill is also seeking an extension of family leave in these circumstances.

How does statutory leave work when a baby is premature?

The current leave system is not thought to offer enough support to parents who have a baby prematurely. Statutory maternity leave offers a maximum of 52 weeks’ leave. Usually, the earliest leave can start is 11 weeks before the expected week of childbirth; however, if the baby is born early, leave starts automatically the day after the birth.

Regardless of how long the baby stays in hospital, the maximum amount of leave can’t be extended. If the baby stays in hospital for many months, parents will have reduced time with the baby once they are home from hospital, perhaps with further treatment to also consider.

What can employers do?

Employers can put workplace support in place for parents who have babies prematurely, or where the baby is sick. Acas defines a pre-term birth as one that occurs before 37 weeks gestation, and their guidance for workplaces includes babies who are born with a condition that requires urgent or significant medical attention.

The first consideration for employers is to consider how they communicate with their employees. It is common practice to send a new parent the company’s congratulations on the birth of their child. Where the baby is in hospital or ill, employers could send a form of acknowledgement that is sensitive towards the parent, such as a card or flowers that lets the employee know that their colleagues are thinking of them.

The workplace should also consider how to inform members of staff about the birth. It may be best to get consent from the parents before making an announcement, or wait for news of the baby's release from hospital.

Notifying staff of their right to time off can be a useful reminder at a time when they're likely to be concerned with other worries. Fathers and partners of the mother can be reminded that they have the right to take their paternity leave within eight weeks of the birth or due date, so they can choose to take leave immediately or wait until the baby is released from hospital. Depending on their eligibility, employees may have the right to take parental leave, or the employer could agree a form of exceptional leave. They may also approve short-notice holiday leave.

Flexible working

Support can be provided by workplaces who adopt a more pragmatic approach to their flexible working rules. Most workplaces will have a flexible working policy, setting out how an employer will deal with a request in a reasonable manner. In these circumstances, the employer could consider expediting the process and approving the request without the need for the employee to attend a meeting.

The workplace could also offer flexible working on an informal basis, or extend the flexible working policy to those parents who do not have the right to make a statutory request, either because they have insufficient service, or have made a request within the previous 12 months.

Where the flexible working request is agreed, it can be discussed whether this is a temporary change to the employee’s terms while the baby remains in hospital, or if they require a permanent change. Any agreement should be set down in writing, so that both parties are clear about the arrangements.

When the employee returns to work, their baby may still be in hospital or require ongoing treatment. To provide support during this period, the employer can agree that unpaid time off or annual leave can be used to cover appointments.

This will be a difficult and sensitive time for employees, so as much support as possible should be given, including communicating with the employee to assess what level of support they need.

About the author

Kate Palmer is head of advisory and equality at Peninsula.

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