The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) has issued new guidance for employers of individuals with premature or sick babies.

The organisation points out that there are tens of thousands of women who give birth to premature or ill babies every year in the UK and suggests that employers have an important role to play in supporting them through the associated challenges.

ACAS makes clear that employers should focus initially on communicating in a “sensitive and compassionate” way with any member of their workforce who has an ill or premature baby. This will involve notifying them of their statutory rights in relation to leave and pay. Briefly, women are entitled to 39 weeks’ statutory maternity pay from the 20th week before the expected week of childbirth and can also take up to 52 weeks maternity leave with the earliest start date usually 11 weeks before the baby’s due date. It is possible to share some of this leave and pay (a maximum of 50 weeks leave and 37 weeks’ pay) with their partners and fathers/partners can also take up to 2 weeks paternity leave. Difficulties can arise if babies are born early and/or are unwell as the mother may not yet have her MAT B1 form which is needed to trigger the payment of statutory maternity pay. This could leave families in a very difficult financial position and therefore employers may want to consider offering a loan or salary advance to help them through this period.

Employers are also advised to ask parents whether they’d prefer their colleagues not to be made aware of their situation and what form of communication suits them best, whether that’s email, text message or phone call.

Offering a degree of flexibility to employees who are parents of premature babies when they return to work is also encouraged, particularly if they are required to attend follow up hospital appointments as is often the case in these situations. It is important to remember that fathers, as well as mothers, may need this additional flexibility.

“Working parents in these circumstances often find themselves trying to handle the demands of their job, caring for their new-born and looking after other family members,” said Anne Sharp, ACAS’ chief executive in a statement.

“Our new advice helps explain the law within this complicated area in a way that will help employers support working parents whilst taking account of the needs of their business.”

ACAS cites estimates suggesting that there are more than 95,000 premature or sick babies born each year in the UK and its full guidelines on handling these situations from an employer’s perspective can be found here on its website.

The new guidelines have been welcomed by the premature and sick baby charity Bliss, whose chief executive Caroline Lee-Davey has said they represent a “useful resource for employers to highlight clearly the measures they can take to support their employees if their baby is born premature or sick”.

Business minister Margot James also welcomed the publication of ACAS’ in-depth guidance for employers and said: “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.

“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.”