There are over 95,000 premature or sick babies born each year in the UK. ACAS has recently published guidance for employers to assist in managing any employees who face these difficult times.
Currently, new parents have a statutory entitlement to 52 weeks leave. There is a two week period of compulsory maternity leave for the mother immediately after the birth of the child. The father has a right to take two weeks paternity leave within eight weeks of the actual date of birth or within eight weeks of the date that the baby was due to be born, if they prefer. The mother can then remain on maternity leave for up to a further 50 weeks, or the parents can opt to both take some time with the new baby (either at the same time or separately) via the system of Shared Parental Leave (ShPL), which was introduced in 2015.
While the ShPL scheme gives new parents greater flexibility in relation to taking time off work to be with their new baby, employers should be empathetic to the stress, emotional and even additional financial pressures which can be caused by the birth of a premature or sick baby.
Employers should approach all communications with the new parents sensitively, as this is likely to be a highly stressful time. Employers should carefully explore whether your employee wants to be contacted and, if so, the best way to do this. Ask what they would like you to tell their colleagues. Congratulations may not feel appropriate but that does not mean that the birth of the baby should be ignored. So long as the parents are in agreement with you informing colleagues about the situation, small gestures from colleagues can make a big difference (help with care of other children, home cooked meals, even just a card or text).
If the baby has arrived before the MAT B1 form has been received, this may cause some financial difficulty for the new parents, if statutory maternity pay will not be paid from the day that the baby is born. Consider whether to offer a loan or an advance of salary to assist the parents, until statutory maternity/shared parental pay has been processed. If you think the parents are not fully aware of the different leave entitlements available to them, highlight these rights and let them know that you are willing to accept a shorter notification period for ShPL.
The eventual return to work may be a daunting time for your employee, particularly if their child is being left in the care of someone outside the family for the first time. Any formal request for flexible working should be carefully considered and dealt with in accordance with the legal framework. Consider whether an informal flexible arrangement may work better for all, particularly if the child's needs are likely to change over the coming months. Such an arrangement may include time off to attend any hospital appointments or to deal with any emergencies which arise, the ability to start later and make up the hours at another time if the employee has had a difficult night or the option of working from home if need be. The employee should also be made aware of their right to take parental leave over the coming years.
Employers facing this situation are advised to deal with the employee compassionately and be prepared to push the boundaries of normal company practice to assist. Communication is key, particularly if an informal flexible arrangement is going to work for both parties and following the employee's return to work. Your line manager and employee should be encouraged to talk regularly so that any potential problems can be ironed out before they escalate.