A key piece of legislation is currently passing through parliament, backed by the government that aims to give longer leave rights to parents of babies that need to spend time in neonatal care.
If the Bill becomes law, these parents will receive new protections, allowing them paid leaves of absence and reducing the financial, practical and emotional burden on them at what is already a difficult time.
So, in the meantime, what can employers do to provide further support?
Babies who are born prematurely (before 37 weeks), poorly, or with a low birth weight, can require admittance into a neonatal unit, often for a prolonged period. More than 90,000 babies in the UK are admitted into neonatal units each year, around 15% of all UK births.
Despite this, there is currently no specific right to paid leave for parents of babies who need specialist care. Instead, parents must rely on statutory maternity and paternity leave entitlements to spend time with their baby, often in a hospital or highly medicalised environment.
Especially with the cost-of-living crisis, parents are faced with the gruelling decision whether to take unpaid leave to spend time with their poorly child or return to work, given the lack of paid leave. For fathers in particular, this often means being required to return to work after two weeks’ paternity leave.
Mothers, too, often find that their 39 weeks of paid maternity leave does not give them sufficient opportunity to bond with their baby outside of a medical setting, before they too have to return to work.
The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill proposes to allow parents to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave, as well as their other parental leave entitlements, to allow them to spend precious time with their baby.
The changes implemented by this Bill will be available to all employees who have a baby admitted to hospital within the first 28 days of life and have a continuous hospital stay of seven days or more.
Furthermore, the leave will be available from an employee’s first day in a new job, and not subject to minimum service requirements. Neonatal leave pay will be subject to minimum service requirements and other criteria.
The Bill passed the parliamentary committee stage on 7 September 2022, and you can follow the progress here.
Even if the Bill successfully passes all the stages, it often takes at least 18 months for such changes to be implemented by HMRC and commercial payroll providers – which means any legislation is unlikely to be introduced before mid 2024 at the earliest.
1. While employees are not yet legally entitled to neonatal leave, the Bill demonstrates what is likely to be considered a reasonable minimum. Employers might therefore consider using the Bill’s leave provisions as guidance for what to offer if they wish to provide further support and implement policies ahead of the Bill becoming Law.
2. Put neonatal leave into company policy – this could include not only leave and pay entitlements, but time off to attend hospital visits, flexible working arrangements and allowances for phased returns once the employee is ready to start working again.
3. Provide training and raise awareness of neonatal care and how to support employees in these difficult circumstances. Make sure policies and training are inclusive and not centred solely on women or what is considered the historically typical or nuclear family.
4. Ensure employees are aware of the benefits and support available, whether through an employee assistance programme, targeted counselling by private healthcare or signposting to other resources and support.
5. Create and encourage an open and inclusive dialogue within your workplace; while some people may not feel able to be fully open about their experiences, hearing the topics discussed openly creates a more reassuring and supportive environment and validates their experiences.
The inflexibility of the current legislation surrounding these issues often exacerbates stress and anxiety for parents at is what is already an immensely difficult time. While the Bill may take another year or so to become law, the need for action is now.
“Leave your problems at home” may have been a historical mantra for the business environment but the new generation of leaders recognise the real(and costly) impact of personal life events on employee productivity, performance and preservation and strive to address this.