How can employers support parents with babies that need neonatal care?

Need to know:

  • The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill will allow parents with babies needing neonatal care to take up to 12 weeks paid leave.
  • The Employer with Heart charter is awarded to organisations that have extra provisions in place for employees with babies who are born prematurely.
  • Support such as an employee assistance programme (EAP), flexible-working arrangements and a parent-friendly policy can help to create a culture where employees feel able to ask for help.

Every year, around 60,000 babies are born at less than 37 weeks, with many requiring specialist, neonatal care. As it can be a difficult time for parents, employers are exploring ways to support them.

Catriona Ogilvy, founder of permature baby charity, The Smallest Things, says: “A maternity leave policy isn’t enough. Maternity leave starts from birth but some mums won’t even get to bring their baby home before it’s up. Even when they do, it can be hard as preterm babies can still be very vulnerable.”

Fathers and non-birthing parents can also struggle. They receive two weeks statutory leave, during which they may be juggling childcare arrangements at home as well as supporting their partner and the new baby.

Providing support to these new parents is important. “[Generally], one in 10 mums drops out of work after having a preterm baby,” says Ogilivy. “Giving them the support they need to look after their baby means an employer is much more likely to keep them in the workforce.”

Neonatal Care Bill

The government has recognised the needs of these families. The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill proposes giving the parents of babies who require neonatal care the right to up to 12 weeks of paid leave in addition to other leave entitlements such as maternity and paternity leave.

Although the bill is still going before Parliament, Melanie Morton, managing associate at law firm Freeths, is confident it will become law. “It could still be months before it receives Royal Assent but it has received little controversy or criticism so far and has the support of many organisations, employers and support groups,” she says.

While this is a significant move, many employers are already doing more. For example, to receive The Smallest Things Employer with Heart charter, employers must agree to a set of standards including: extending maternity leave by the number of days a baby is born before the due date; giving dads two weeks’ paid compassionate leave; and supporting parents with additional flexibility when they return to work.

Parent policy

Whether aligning with the charter or adopting their own approach, employers that want to show their support to parents of preterm babies should start with a policy, says Rachel Western, principal at Aon. “This should be a broad policy covering the support that is available to employees with children, whether it’s a preterm baby, baby loss or an older child who is seriously ill,” she says. “This shows the [employer] is supportive of parents’ diverse needs and will encourage employees to ask for help when needed.”

When drawing up this policy, employers should start by considering time off for parents and whether it is paid or unpaid leave. “Employers may want to offer sabbaticals where an employee wants to take a longer period of leave to support a child,” she adds. “Flexible working can also be useful, enabling employees to work from home or change their hours to suit their needs as a parent.”

Emotional support

As well as supporting employees with time off and flexibility, employers should also consider their emotional needs. This should start from the first day of pregnancy, says Emma Jarvis, founder of Parent Promise. “Stress, anxiety and lack of support can increase the risk of preterm birth so it’s important that employers create a supportive family-friendly culture,” she explains.

Her organisation focuses on the preventative wellbeing side, giving employees access to a range of support and information throughout pregnancy and parenthood including access to a midwife and other health professionals.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can also be a valuable tool. “An EAP can provide support with any mental health issues but also offer practical advice,” says Western. “Money worries are common among parents with preterm babies. Employers could also add charities and support groups to their intranet sites. These can provide the emotional support and advice employees need during difficult times.”