Leading the way on premature baby leave

The London Borough of Waltham Forest shared this year’s workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award for Family Support for its inspiring premature baby policy.

Premature baby in hospital


A relatively small, low-cost change to parental leave policy can have a big impact.

When London Borough of Waltham Forest Councillor Clyde Loakes, deputy leader and cabinet member for HR, attended a presentation on premature births by Catriona Ogilvy, founder of The Smallest Things campaign, he listened to her make the case for a change in government policy to give parents of premature babies the right to extend their parental leave entitlement.

Councillor Loakes spoke to Ogilvy after the event and, while he couldn’t change national government policy, he realised that at a local level the council was in a positive position to influence local authorities, to change employers’ way of thinking and to push national policymakers from below.

He says: “I found myself wondering: do we need to wait for a change in the law to help parents in this position, or could Waltham Forest – an organisation where we value our workforce and care deeply about their wellbeing – just go ahead and put this support in place?”

He proposed a change in the council’s parental leave policy and got early buy-in from senior leaders. In a matter of weeks, the Premature Baby Leave and Pay policy was born. That policy saw the London Borough of Waltham Forest share workingmums.co.uk’s 2019 Top Employer Award for Family Support.

Relieving financial stress

The policy enables any employee who has a baby born before 37 weeks to receive additional leave at full pay. This leave and pay covers the time the employee’s baby spends in hospital from birth until the original due date, with employees’ existing entitlement to maternity and paternity leave being unaffected.

Jane Morris, HR Consultant, Employee Experience, Corporate Development at the London Borough of Waltham Forest, said: “It was a really simple and obvious thing to do for our employees. For employees in this stressful situation, work is the last thing on the minds. Normally if a baby is born early the maternity leave period and pay kicks in straight away so in these cases everything starts while the baby is still in hospital, leaving parents with less time to enjoy their baby when they eventually come home. This change in policy takes away both the financial worry and means that parents can enjoy their full leave entitlement.”

It’s not just regular costs that can cause financial worry during this time, but it can also be additional unexpected ones, including possible taxis to and from the hospital, car park fees, hotel accommodation and possible childcare costs to look after older siblings.

Jane says buy-in was very straightforward because the policy was clearly something that would have a very positive impact on those parents affected. “Often the best things are those that are simple and obvious,” says Morris. So far four mothers and one father have benefited from the council’s change in policy which was launched in January 2018.

Inspiring others

It was publicised widely to raise awareness of the important work the The Smallest Things campaign was doing, receiving extensive media coverage and even a mention in Parliament.

In July 2018, after a senior executive heard a discussion about Waltham Forest Council’s policy on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, The Greater London Authority introduced a similar policy later in 2018 which was developed with advice and support from Waltham Forest.

Laura Heywood, HR Business Partner at the Greater London Authority, says: “Waltham Forest’s HR team were really open in sharing their policy and their experience of implementing it. This helped us deliver our own policy at speed and achieved a positive response from our staff and also externally.”

Waltham Forest Council has also inspired other local authorities and public sector organisations and has been happy to share its policy documents via the council’s external site. Employee and management can also access the information via the council’s intranet site where they let employees know of their family policies and provide guidance for managers [for instance, on how to tag the additional pay for payroll, how to handle informing colleagues or how to support parents if their child subsequently dies].

Waltham Forest Council has also been encouraging its suppliers to implement the policy, although Jane recognises that it can be more challenging for smaller companies.

Towards a change in national policy

The Government has been exploring the possibility of adopting neonatal leave and pay. “We just wanted to get the message out there, this it is so simple and easy to do, but making it a statutory right was our ultimate aim,” says Jane. “We love offering something that can have such a positive impact. It shows employers can be flexible and compassionate. Employees want to work for a good employer and people are more loyal to organisations that look after them.”

Catriona Ogilvy, founder of the Smallest Things, said: “Waltham Forest has blazed a trail. The decision raised the profile of the Smallest Things campaign, paved the way for our Employer with Heart charter mark, and encouraged other employers to follow the council’s lead. By introducing this critical support for employees who experience the uncertainty and sometimes trauma of premature birth, Waltham Forest has shown it is truly an employer with heart.”

It is, of course, employees who have used the policy who best demonstrate its personal impact. Rochelle Francis, who received 14 weeks of additional paid leave after her triplets were born prematurely, says: “Giving birth to a premature baby is a rollercoaster – imagine having three! Within the neonatal unit, you hear lots of stories from people who couldn’t spend enough time with their babies and ended up returning to work early or leaving their job. Waltham Forest’s scheme has made a huge difference to me. It’s great to know your employer is backing you and your finances are stable – it takes away so much stress and worry. I feel proud to work for an organisation that is leading the way on this.”



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