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Employees will experience an extremely difficult and worrying time when they become parents to premature or sick babies. It is estimated over 95,000 premature or sick babies are born each year in the UK, making it highly likely that all workplaces will employ a parent who is undergoing this situation.
Manchester City has recently made headlines for their sensitive and understanding treatment of their star midfielder David Silva. Whilst many football clubs struggled with squad rotation over the congested fixture list in December, the midfielder has been noticeably absent. He recently revealed the club had given him extended time off due to the extremely premature birth of his son, with the City boss saying “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. 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.
The current leave system is not thought to offer support to those parents who have a baby prematurely. 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 impact this.
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 which occurs before 37 weeks gestation 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 employees. It is common practice to send a new parent the company’s congratulations on the birth of their child. However, this may not be appropriate where the baby 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 of the mother 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.
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 whilst the baby 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 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.
*Kate Palmer is Head of Advisory at Peninsula UK, an HR, Employment Law and Health & Safety Consultancy.