One in ten births are pre-term – that’s according to the World Health Organization. This means that globally, 13.4 million babies are born earlier than 37 weeks every year.
These babies often end up in specialist neonatal care units (otherwise known as NICU) – but these statistics don’t take into account their fellow neonatal patients: babies who are born full-term but are poorly.
In the UK, for every seven babies born, one is admitted to neonatal care. These stays in specialist neonatal hospital units can last for months, and are incredibly traumatic for families, and particularly parents.
Research from Bliss, the leading UK charity for premature and sick babies, found that for 70% of families with babies in neonatal care, one parent has to return to work.
Also, in many cases, parents have to be signed off sick from work, or take unpaid leave and maybe leave the workforce altogether, in order to look after their sick newborn.
None of this is beneficial to parents – they suffer higher rates of stress, depression, and PTSD. But this situation is also bad news for their employers, who are facing talent shortages, and really do not want to lose talented employees in this scenario.
Enter the UK’s Neonatal Care Act
To try and help fix this problem, the UK government has passed the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act.
On 24 May 2023, the bill received Royal Assent from King Charles and became law. This means that for the first time, families in the UK will have a statutory entitlement to paid leave from work if their baby needs neonatal care – for qualifying parents, they can receive up to 12 weeks of extra leave and pay.
Caroline Lee-Davey, chief executive at Bliss, tells UNLEASH that the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act “will make a huge difference to around 60,000 parents every year, and to their babies.
“It will relieve the additional stress of having to juggle looking after a critically ill baby in hospital with work, ease some of the financial pressure and, by allowing parents to be more involved in their baby’s care, improve the health outcomes of premature and sick babies.”
She adds: “The inflexibility of the current parental leave system doesn’t work for working parents, or their employers, when a baby is admitted to neonatal care. This law has the potential to transform the experience of both parents and employers.”
The UK is leading the way on neonatal pay and leave, but it is not the only country to offer additional support to families in this scenario.
For instance, in Croatia, Finland and Canada, maternity leave can be extended in the case of premature births and poorly babies.
Going above and beyond
Lee-Davey continues: “At Bliss, we know that the vast majority of employers want to provide more support to their employees if they have a baby admitted to neonatal care – they just lack a framework to do so.
“The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act provides an excellent opportunity to support employees during a challenging period of their lives.”
The statutory leave entitlements in the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act only come into effect in 2025, so now is the time for employers to get ahead of the game and implement policies before they are legally required to do so.
Lee-Davey shares: “By implementing a neonatal leave and pay policy now you will:
- ensure that the leave parents take is predictable (as far as it can be) for them as well as for you as an employer
- improve retention by giving parents the time they need before returning to work; improve your offer to prospective employees by including neonatal leave and pay as part of your benefits package
- help your employees focus on their job when they’re back at work – rather than worrying about a baby still unwell in hospital.”
But there are some employers who are already leading the way. They have been working with charities like Bliss to implement policies in advance of the Act even being signed into law, and ahead of legislation elsewhere in the world.
Here are four examples – employers and HR leaders, are you ready to step and follow their example?
Multinational retailer M&S has almost 80,000 employees and 1,500 stores (plus an online presence) globally.
M&S has long been focused on being a great place to work, but in 2022 it really leaned into offering more support and flexibility to all its employees, even though they’re on the frontline.
The policy is called Worklife, and it was launched in November 2022. But in May 2023, just before the UK’s Neonatal Law came into effect, the retailer announced a neonatal-focused extension of the Worklife.
The move was actually linked with the personal experience of a M&S employee called Pam Hedderman. She shared her situation with Jess Cooper, who then got to work on designing a neonatal policy for M&S employees – now all UK workers have access to 12 weeks fully paid leave if their baby requires neonatal care. It is unclear if (or when) global employees will have access to a similar policy.
Talking about the decision, M&S group HR director Sarah Findlater stated: “We’re continually listening to colleagues – like Pam and Jess – to make sure M&S is a great place to work for families and that means being an employer that supports them through all of life’s unexpected moments.
“We know that being a parent of a baby who requires neonatal care is an incredibly worrying time and that time may be spent with their baby in hospital, rather than at home.
“We want to do all we can to support colleagues who find themselves in this heart-breaking situation and we hope the introduction of neonatal leave will provide some peace of mind so that their focus can be on their baby without having to worry about pay or using up their maternity, paternity or adoption leave.”
M&S also has a dedicated HR policy for fertility treatment, that gives employees up to 10 days off to attend appointments for as many as three rounds of treatment.
Virgin Media O2
Slightly ahead of M&S was telecommunications giant Virgin Media O2. It employs over 18,000 workers in the UK, and it is very ahead of the curve around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) policies.
Not only does Virgin Media O2 offer to fund medical care and gender transitions of its transgender and non-binary staff, but it has industry-leading parental policies.
As part of its commitment to DEIB, back in October 2022, the telecoms company increased its maternity, paternity and adoption, and introduced 10 days of paid leave for pregnancy loss and 12 weeks for neonatal leave.
A Virgin Media O2 spokesperson shares exclusively with UNLEASH: “We’re proud to be one of the first UK employers to provide up to 12 weeks’ paid neonatal leave to support parents whose babies are born prematurely or sick, and require neonatal care shortly after birth.
“This is offered on-top off maternity, paternity or adoption leave to ensure parents have quality time to bond with their newborns.
“This forms part of Virgin Media O2’s best-in-class paid leave policies to support our employees so they can be there for their loved ones when it counts, and is part of our overall aim to become a more inclusive and equitable company.”
Around the same, 888 Holdings announced its new neonatal policy; it actually did so on World Prematurity Day (17 November).
888 Holdings is a global betting and gaming company with 11,000 employees globally (it is best known for brands like William Hill and 888casinos).
The new policy, which is only available to UK workers, goes beyond the new UK statutory entitlement. It provides fully paid neonatal leave to parents for the entire period the baby remains in neonatal care – employees are entitled to this from day one of employment.
Mark Skinner, Chief People Officer at 888 Holdings, commented: “Taking care of our colleagues remains a priority for us. If our colleagues are facing the worry of a premature or sick baby it is only right that we do what we can to support them.
“I am proud of this commitment and it’s another example of why people would want to join and love to stay at 888.”
Belonging is very important to 888 Holdings – it is laser focused on breaking taboos at work not just around neonatal care, but also in areas like mental health and menopause.
International Savings and Investments company M&G is headquartered in the UK, but it has 6,000 employees across Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific.
DEIB is a core HR priority for M&G – this explains why the company has equal parental leave (and flexibility on when employees can take it), leave for grandparents and carers, and a four-week back-to-work transition for new parents (where they work 80% of their hours for full pay).
In October 2022, M&G moved to introduce neonatal leave to its industry-leading benefits package. For seven days that an employee’s baby spends in neonatal care, they will be able to take one week of paid leave (up to a total of 12 weeks).
Matt Howells, chief people and corporate affairs officer, shared: “We hope the additional time we are giving colleagues helps them make up for missing out on time to bond as a family in the early stages of parental leave, and alleviates any financial worries of taking extra time out.”
It seems 2022 was a busy year for HR leaders discussing neonatal policies, but Sony Music (a UK subsidiary of the Sony Music group) has had these policies in place since 2018.
It claims to be the first UK private sector company to introduce fully paid leave for parents with babies in the NICU; the number of days or weeks on offer has not been disclosed.
Chairman and CEO for UK&I Jason Iley commented: “We always strive to be understanding and compassionate towards our employees.
“We appreciate that it can be an extremely difficult and worrying time for those who experience premature labor and family is of the upmost importance.”
Sony Music also has equal parental leave, as well as a menopause policy and domestic abuse policies. Most recently, October 2022, the music giant introduced a new contribution towards the childcare of pre-schoolers.
The figure on offer is up to £15,000a year and it is aimed at lower and middle income earners – Iley added: “This is one of several measures that we have introduced to support parents and increase the proportion of women in roles throughout the company. Our hope is that the tapered model ensures that financial support is going to those employees who need it the most.”
HR leaders: now is your chance to act (before you’re legally required to) and really transform your employees’ lives during incredibly difficult times.
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