How to manage your kids’ sick days when you work

by Liz Marchant

As a working parent, you have probably experienced that sinking feeling of waking up to a coughing or feverish child on a morning you can’t possibly miss work.  No matter how understanding your employer may be, no-one enjoys telling our employers and teams that we can’t make it in due to an ill child, especially if you have a big meeting, pitch or deadline that day.

Regardless of which choice we make, either sending a child to daycare or school (and hoping for the best) or taking a carers leave day, we can be struck down by guilt and feel like we are letting down people who depend on us.

Despite the huge leaps we’ve made in gender equality, an article in Mamamia states that, even in 2017, 90 per cent of the time it was mums rather than dads who were staying home with sick kids. Once they have used up their carer’s leave, some women start using up their annual leave. Sadly, this often happens without a discussion about who is best placed to stay home on each occasion.

Regardless of whether you have a partner or not, it’s a good idea to have a contingency plan in place so that, when your child gets sick, you have options for how you are going to deal with it.

Know your rights and plan accordingly

Most Australians in full-time jobs are entitled to 10 days of paid sick or carer’s leave. If you are employed part-time, you get this as pro-rata. These days can be taken to look after members of your family or household when they are unwell. At the end of the year, any sick days you haven’t used up carry over to the next year. In the event that you use them all and your child falls sick again before the end of the year, you can take two days of unpaid carer’s leave for each time a family member has an illness, injury or unexpected emergency.[1]

Look at alternative options

Unfortunately, there will be some days when your child is unwell but you feel you cannot miss work. This may be due to an event, an important meeting, or a hard deadline. Whatever the reason, you need to know what your options are. Here are some to consider:

  • Work from home: If your child is a bit older and can happily entertain themselves, this is one of the best options when you don’t have face-to-face meetings scheduled. Make sure you have everything in place to do this so that you’re well equipped to perform your duties as well as if you were in the office.
  • Share the care with your partner: If you have a partner there’s no reason why you shouldn’t share these duties with them. Perhaps you can each do half a day at home, or take alternate days to go in to work until your child is better.
  • Ask a family member for help: Not everyone has family nearby that can help out, especially at short notice. If you are lucky enough to have family close by, make the most of it.
  • Hire help: Have a plan B ready for those days where you simply can’t miss work and there isn’t a family member or partner to help out. Perhaps a regular babysitter would be happy to look after your kids at short notice? Alternatively, consider using a service such as Sick Sit. Set up by a working mum who was tired of the anxiety and stress that having a sick child induced, she set up a child-sitting service with fully qualified sitters with police checks and first aid certificates available at short notice.

No matter how supportive your employer is, it’s important to act responsibly when your child is sick. This can help minimise the impact on your working relationships with your colleagues who have to pick up the slack, and your employer:

  • Don’t bring sick kids to work with you unless they are definitely not contagious as this puts your colleagues at risk. Most employers would rather you stay at home than infect the rest of their staff and reduce productivity.
  • Only work from home if you know you can be productive. Let your manager know how you will be able to achieve all your deadlines and tasks while you’re at home, and ensure you are available if you take this option. Don’t offer to work from home if you know you’re not going to be productive. There are some illnesses and ages where the child will simply be too high maintenance. If you say you’re working from home but in fact aren’t doing anything, then it’s a bigger drain on the business then taking a day off, and you effectively put this opportunity at risk for others.
  • Don’t always be the one to take sick leave when your child is unwell. If you have a partner, share the load between you rather than one company taking all of the lost productivity.
  • Give your employer and teams as much warning as possible, and try to manage expectations about how long you’re likely to be away for if you can. This will help your teams plan their workload more effectively as well.

You can’t always predict when your child will be ill but, with clear communication and an honest, ethical approach, you can minimise the stress that it causes.