Following attention being brought to this area by a number of campaign groups and a Private Members’ Bill, Acas have now released guidance on supporting working parents who have a premature or sick baby. With over 95,000 premature or sick babies born each year in the UK, many employers are likely to employ a parent in these circumstances.
Statutory maternity leave is available to employees for a period of 52 weeks. The earliest leave can normally begin is 11 weeks before the expected week of childbirth, however, if the baby is born early the leave automatically starts the day after birth. There is no extension to the overall leave and the time the mother gets to bond with their child is reduced where the premature or sick baby is required to stay in hospital for a number of these weeks.
There are also circumstances where the employee is off work with a pregnancy-related illness in the four weeks before their EWC. Their maternity leave starts automatically but, dependent on their illness, the employee may not be able to notify her employer that she has given birth or provide the correct documents.
To support employees with premature or sick babies, employers can consider the following areas:
- Communicate with the employee sensitively – most companies will send their congratulations on the birth of a child, however, this may not be appropriate where the baby is ill. Instead, other methods of acknowledging the birth may be more sensitive such as a card or flowers to let the employee know the company is thinking of them
- Inform others appropriately – it is advisable to get the consent of the employee before informing any colleagues and it may be best to wait for news of release from hospital before making any company or department wide announcement
- Be aware of rules surrounding statutory leave – paternity leave for fathers or the partner of the mother can be taken within eight weeks of the birth, or the due date, so they may choose to take this leave once the baby is released from hospital. The employer can also remind their staff about the right to take parental leave or agree some other form of exceptional leave
- Consider flexibility on the employee’s return – returning to work whilst a child remains ill will be difficult for any employee and they may require ongoing time off to attend hospital appointments or medical check-ups. The employer may be able to agree with the employee that they can take unpaid time off or annual leave to cover these periods
- Discuss options for a temporary flexible working arrangement – agreeing a statutory flexible working request creates a permanent change to the employee’s contract of employment. Employers may wish to discuss an informal flexible working arrangement with the employee to create a temporary change to their terms for a specified period of time. Although informal, this arrangement should be documented in writing to ensure both parties are clear on the arrangements, when the arrangement starts and what happens when it ends i.e. whether the employee reverts to their original terms
This is a difficult and sensitive issue for all parties involved, however, employers can take steps to ensure their employee feels supported during this time.