Experts have reminded employers to sensitively open up channels of communication, and not make assumptions about plans to return to work, when supporting parents of premature or ill babies.
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) yesterday published guidelines for employers that had staff with premature or ill babies. The guidance included encouraging careful communication, approaching parents to make sure they were comfortable being contacted by their workplace with offers of help, and asking parents what they would like their colleagues to be told about their situation. More than 95,000 premature or sick babies are born each year in the UK.
In particular, the guidelines note that, while congratulations may not always seem appropriate, it is still important to acknowledge the birth of a premature or unwell baby. Acknowledging a birth could be as simple as sending a card to let the parents know their employer and colleagues are thinking about them at a difficult time.
"Working parents deserve support at work, and those who have premature babies should expect nothing less than total backing from their employers at what can be an exceptionally difficult and worrying time,” said business minister Margot James. "Most employers already treat their staff with compassion and flexibility. This guidance removes any doubt for parents about what their rights are and lets employers know how best to provide support."
Caroline Lee-Davey, chief executive of premature and sick baby charity Bliss, praised the guidelines as “a welcome and useful resource for employers to highlight clearly the measures they can take to support their employees if their baby is born premature or sick”.
Meanwhile, Kirstie Axtens, head of employer services at Working Families, told People Management that employers must be flexible about parents returning to work following the birth of a premature baby. “It’s important that employers don’t make assumptions about employees returning to the workplace,” she said. “Some people may want to come back with reduced hours, or a phased return, and some may want to come back full time and take on additional responsibilities.
“Mothers may want to return sooner than fathers or vice versa, and there shouldn’t be any expectations or judgement about a particular course of action… What’s most important is employers taking the time to have a conversation to explore all the options on the table.”
The Acas guidelines come shortly after the publication of a parental bereavement bill, which was introduced to parliament in July. If passed, the bill will give employed parents a statutory right to paid time off to grieve following the death of a child. The right to time off work does not expressly exist in law at present, but the Acas guidelines offer advice on how to respect and manage the grieving processes of parents.
“The new bill will address the sad case of a child lost at a later point in its life but, in the case of babies, parents are already covered [by maternity leave],” Jennifer Liston-Smith, director of head of coaching and consultancy at My Family Care, told People Management. “But managers may not understand this, and may assume that someone in that very sad situation would be coming back after a short period of compassionate leave. Therefore it is very important to underline that they still have that right to maternity or adoption leave.”
Axtens added: “Employers could use the opportunity of these new guidelines to think through how they would manage the situation if this happened to one of their employees. It is better to have an agreed policy and approach, rather than managers having to navigate uncharted territory when difficult circumstances arise.”