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Helping mothers of premature babies manage their leave and return to work

Women are campaigning to have statutory maternity leave extended for mothers of babies born prematurely. They are arguing that because premature babies often need to stay in hospital for extended periods of time, their mothers do not have the same amount of time at home to bond with their newborns as full-term mothers. The campaign is calling for an extra week's leave for every week a premature baby has to remain in hospital before being allowed home. Bliss, a charity for premature and sick babies, has suggested an alternative might be to allow mothers of premature babies a guarantee of 12 months' leave starting from their original expected week of childbirth.

Currently, mothers cannot extend their maternity leave where their baby has been born prematurely. Mothers may take up to 52 weeks' maternity leave on the birth of their child and, subject to certain conditions, can choose when to begin it. However, if the baby arrives early, paid maternity leave begins automatically the day after the birth, which in turn brings forward the end of the maternity leave period.

The government believes the current system does strike the right balance between the needs of new mums, including those with premature babies, and their employers, and that offering these mothers extended maternity leave might have a negative impact. For instance, if mothers become entitled to an extra week's leave for each week their baby is hospitalised, organisations may find it more difficult, and expensive, to get adequate maternity leave cover.

There are also practical concerns for the mothers. The longer they are out of the workplace, the more difficult it is for them to reintegrate on their return, and if the mother's duties are redistributed among existing employees because there is a longer time period involved, rather than given to a substitute employee, the organisation may consider her role to have become redundant. This raises the difficult question of whether this is a genuine redundancy or less favourable treatment, as the employer might not otherwise consider the role redundant had the employee not been on maternity leave.

Many consider that UK maternity leave is already generous by comparison, for example, with the US, which only grants its mothers 12 weeks' unpaid leave, and Canada, where mothers only receive 17 weeks' unpaid maternity leave, and that its family-friendly rights have already been extended quite considerably by the introduction of shared parental leave. And, while amending the current maternity leave legislation would be fairly uncomplicated, it is not certain how many mothers would take it up. Most mothers currently only take nine of the available 12 months' leave because the final three months are unpaid. Many either cannot afford to remain at home, or wish to return to work. This trend is unlikely to change even if the legislation was to offer an extension.

Whether there will be a change to the law on maternity leave remains to be seen but, in the meantime, there are steps employers can take to assist the mothers of premature babies, following what can clearly be a stressful experience. By supporting these mothers during their maternity leave, and on their return to work, employers are less likely to face any unexpected issues and can deal with concerns more promptly.

Organisations should: 

  • keep in touch with the mother and have open discussions about the impact of the premature birth on her maternity leave;
  • recognise that work will not necessarily be at the forefront of her mind, and avoid contacting her so often that she feels pestered;
  • direct her to any support services the organisation offers to help her through a difficult period;
  • offer her a phased return to work at the end of her maternity leave, or the option to work more flexibly; and
  • arrange regular meetings following her return to work to ensure she is reintegrating well and not facing any difficulties.

The organisation could also explore the employee's interest in attending keeping in touch (KIT) days. While not obligatory, KIT days can be useful as the employee can attend up to 10 without bringing her maternity leave to an end, which might help her ease back into the routine of work.

Added: 22-11-2016
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