HR · 8 January 2018

How employers can support parents who have babies prematurely

Baby love is the best of all
The current leave system isn’t thought to support parents who have a baby prematurely

Manchester City football club recently made headlines for their sensitive and understanding treatment of their star midfielder, David Silva. Here, head of advisory at Peninsula Law, Kate Palmer, tells other employers how they can support parents who’ve had a baby prematurely.

Employees will experience an extremely difficult and worrying time when they become parents to premature or poorly babies.

It is estimated that over 95,000 premature or poorly children are born each year in the UK, making it highly likely that all workplaces will employ a parent who is undergoing this situation.

David Silva recently revealed that Manchester City football club had given him extended time off due to the extremely premature birth of his son, with the club’s boss declaring: “Family is most important”.

Another employer, Waltham Forest Council, is supporting the Smallest Things campaign, and will offer their employees an extra week’s maternity and paternity leave for each week their premature baby spends in hospital.

Read more:

An employer’s guide to shared parental leave and pay

Five important employment law issues facing business owners in 2018

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

The current leave system is not thought to support parents who have a baby prematurely, and statutory maternity leave offers a maximum of 52 weeks’ leave. Normally, 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 birth.

Regardless of how long the baby stays in hospital, the maximum amount of leave cannot be extended. If the baby stays in hospital for many months, parents have a reduced time to bond with the baby once released, and further treatment will also have an impact on this.

Employers can put workplace measures in place to support parents who have babies prematurely, or when their baby is unwell.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) defines a “pre-term” birth as one which occurs before 37 weeks, and their guidance for workplaces includes babies who are born which a condition that requires urgent or significant medical attention.

The first consideration for employers is to consider how they communicate with their staff. It is common practice to send the company’s congratulations to an employee who becomes a parent on the birth of their child, however, this may not be appropriate where the child is in hospital, or suffering from illness.

Instead, employers could send a form of acknowledgement which is sensitive towards the parent, such as a card or flowers which let the employee know the company is thinking of them.

In addition, the workplace should consider how they inform other members of staff about the birth. It may be best to get consent from the parents first before making an announcement or wait for news of release from the hospital.

Notifying staff of their rights to time off can be a useful reminder during a time when the employee is likely to be concerned with other worries.

Fathers and partners can be reminded that they have the right to take their paternity leave within eight works of the birth or the 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.

Employees can be supported further by workplaces that 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.

An employer 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 whilst their child remains in hospital, or if they require a permanent change. Any agreement should be set down in writing so both parties are clear on the arrangements.

When the employee returns to work, their child may still be in hospital or require ongoing treatment. To support parents 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 staff to assess what level of support parents need.

Kate Palmer is Head of Advisory at Peninsula

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Kate Palmer CIPD is the head of advisory at law firm Peninsula and is a member of its senior leadership team. She joined in 2009 having held a senior HR manager's role in another large company. With a specialist background in facilities management in the NHS, Kate offers a wealth of employment law experience. She's an expert negotiator - one notable case was with the NHS's trade unions over terms and conditions in the Agenda for Change pay system.

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