New ACAS guidance on supporting parents with sick or premature babies

New parents whose children are born prematurely or encounter medical difficulties at birth can go through a very difficult time.

New parents whose children are born prematurely or encounter medical difficulties at birth can go through a very difficult time and, when this happens, it is likely to impact upon their working lives. There are over 95,000 premature or sick babies born in the UK each year and you may struggle to know how best to manage the situation to address both the needs of your business and the best interests of the employee. To try to assist, ACAS has now published new guidance setting out best practice.

The NHS definition of premature babies covers those born before 37 weeks gestation. Within this there are 3 distinct sub-categories:

  • Extremely preterm, which means those born before 28 weeks;
  • Very preterm, which means those born before 32 weeks; and
  • Moderate to late preterm, covering those born between 32 and 37 weeks.

Both premature babies and those who are born full-term (37 weeks or later) may be sick, needing treatment for infections or conditions that require significant medical attention. In some situations this may mean that they have to be transferred to a specialist neonatal unit in another area. In such circumstances it can be easy for parents to forget that they have obligations to notify you of the fact and date of birth to be entitled to things like statutory maternity pay. The guidance suggests that it might be helpful to carefully and considerately remind new parents that certain paperwork needs to be completed. ACAS also highlights the need to approach the issue of informing new parents’ colleagues with caution, always taking into account the parents’ wishes regarding what information (if any) about the situation should be circulated.

The ACAS guidance also covers potential issues related to taking time off from work. New mothers have a statutory right to up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave, but fathers/partners of new mothers have more limited rights. However, the guidance suggests that, in circumstances where unexpected medical complications occur, you may wish to exercise some flexibility as fathers/partners will naturally want to spend additional time with their child and the mother. Options could, for example, include paternity leave, parental leave or special leave, or accepting a shorter notice period for shared parental leave.

In addition, the guidance serves as a useful reminder that you should continue to monitor the situation and be prepared to continue to offer some flexibility long after the date of birth. A child’s ongoing medical difficulties could impact upon an employee’s planned return to work or additional ad-hoc time off may be needed to attend follow up appointments at hospital or a specialist clinic. It may also be advisable to hold review meetings to ensure that you are offering adequate and suitable support to employees who may be struggling to balance their work with added difficulties at home.

Unfortunately there are also situations where premature or sick babies do not survive and ACAS offers advice (both within this new guidance and in a separate, dedicated guide) to help you manage these very distressing times appropriately and sensitively. This will be particularly welcome as grief does not affect everybody in the same way and it may fall to you to steer the individual employee through incredibly difficult circumstances.

Ultimately, it is in the interests of both you and the employee to keep up good communication.  If you demonstrate discretion, compassion and flexibility towards new parents facing challenging circumstances, the organisation is likely to get a considerable degree of goodwill and renewed commitment in return. In contrast, approaching such a situation in the wrong manner could lose you goodwill or even cost you a valuable employee.

Given that these circumstances are, thankfully, relatively unusual this guidance is an important tool in helping you navigate the unfamiliar and benchmark your approach. It is also important to remember that there is no one right way to approach these situations and different considerations will apply to each.

If you would like to discuss any particular case or your approach to best practice we would be happy to advise you.

The new ACAS guidance can be found online at www.acas.org.uk

Paul Bownes (paul.bownes@weightmans.com) is a Solicitor in the Employment, Pensions and Immigration Team and is based in Birmingham. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact Paul or speak to your usual Weightmans advisor.

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