Supporting an employee with a premature or unwell baby

Acas has released new guidance for employers on supporting employees who have ill or premature babies

Having recently become a parent myself, I have a new-found understanding for the life-changing experience that having a baby brings. A full-term pregnancy and subsequent healthy birth is perhaps one of the most wonderful yet stressful life events we may experience. But the prospect of having a complicated birth or pre-term delivery, with a poorly baby to then care for, is extremely daunting.

Add to that the possibility that a new parent’s mental health may suffer after having a baby (not to mention one that is critically ill), and the other pressures of adult life (finances, mortgage, accommodation and work), and the new guidance from Acas on the subject of employer support is welcome.

According to Acas there are more than 95,000 premature or sick babies born each year in the UK. The NHS defines premature babies as those born before 37 weeks. There are three sub-categories:

  • Extremely pre-term (before 28 weeks)
  • Very pre-term (before 32 weeks)
  • Moderate to late pre-term (32 to 37 weeks).

Full-term yet sick babies may also have serious medical conditions, require treatment or operations, even needing life support. Some babies sadly do not survive following all available treatment.

In summary, the new guidance from Acas includes the following points:

  • Bearing in mind the lower income levels of an employee on statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance, the financial pressures upon them, and the additional expenses they may incur while visiting hospital regularly, employers could consider granting salary advances or giving loans to employees. Some employers may baulk at this but others may consider it a small gesture to support a loyal and dedicated employee through a difficult time.
  • Communication should be carefully considered and sensitively put. Emails and written communication can often read bluntly. Employees should be asked how they wish to be communicated with and what, if anything, they would like colleagues to be told about the situation. A greeting card from colleagues is rarely ill-received but minimal, overbearing or insensitive communication is likely to be upsetting.
  • Ensure that employees know their statutory (and contractual) entitlements to take leave, share leave and receive benefits. In the case of parents having a difficult time, there is nothing to stop employers or colleagues going beyond the realms of the staff handbook and offering transport, food or help with childcare.
  • Flexibility to allow for both mother and father to meet appointments, visit the hospital, use their leave and ensure they look after their own wellbeing is essential. In the event that a newborn dies, grief can manifest itself in various ways. Acas has already produced a guide for employers about managing bereavement in the workplace.
  • Reasonable employers will show compassion and understanding for an employee’s individual circumstances. In a scenario where parents have been through a traumatic birth and then cared for a poorly baby for a number of months thereafter, they are likely to be anxious about returning to work or leaving their baby for the first time. Adapting procedures and working patterns informally or considering flexible working requests are ways to accommodate employees and phase them back into the workplace. Failure to properly deal with a flexible working request can have greater implications, including giving an employee grounds for a tribunal claim.

Showing depth of understanding and compassion, a willingness to listen, and an ability to consider and adapt to meet the needs of an employee, provides genuine support and will maintain great employee relations following maternity/paternity leave. This is nothing we did not already know but it certainly helps to see it in writing.

Alexandra Mills is an employment solicitor at Blacks Solicitors