Sick parents and sick kids: how understanding is your employer?

A poll shows most employers are understanding when it comes to child sickness, but some are not, leaving parents stressed, anxious and, in some cases, forced to quit their jobs.

Sick Child


Nicola* is mum to a two year old. Over the last year the whole family had Covid in addition to the usual bugs. Nicola had to continue working from home while sick and while taking care of her son when he was sick. “It’s just expected,” she says.

She doesn’t even know if her employer – a financial services firm – would allow her to have time off for child sickness. They do have a sickness policy on paper, but she is wary of using it. “It’s very rare that I call in sick,” she says. In fact, she recalls coming into the office with a slipped disc before Covid despite finding it difficult to walk and she mentions that they were not supportive when she had IVF or when she took holiday and sick leave after she had a miscarriage, although her partner who works for another employer got both IVF leave and miscarriage leave. “So long as they get their pound of flesh they are happy,” she says.

Currently, if she has to work from home due to sickness on an office day, Nicola has to make up the office day later, even though that can be tricky as she changed her childcare arrangements when the office moved to homeworking as a result of Covid. She adds that more than three absences in a year for sickness tends to prompt a performance review.

But it is not about her own health that Nicola is angry. It is that she feels she cannot take time off to look after her son and has to work. “When he is poorly I feel I should be able to look after him rather than feeling I have to work,” she says. “He should come first.” Her son has had various bugs, including hand, foot and mouth disease, but she can only recall one time when she didn’t have to work when her son was throwing up continuously.

Nicola works two days a week in the office and two at home, but says her managers are keen to get people back in the office more and have started doing gate reports on office attendance. She says failure to come to the office to work can affect a person’s performance rating. “The attitude is that they don’t trust people despite the fact that we have proven we can work from home during Covid,” says Nicola.

She is feeling very on edge already because she wants to reduce her hours when her son starts school and she feels her managers will be resistant, given they have been trying to get her to come in full time [she works nearly full time now, but compressed]. “I can see they will make it difficult for me,” she says, adding that she feels employers need to provide more support to parents generally. “Employers have parental leave policies once the baby is born, but being a parent doesn’t finish when your child turns one,” she says.

Survey results

Nicola’s experience is not uncommon. We did a quick poll of over 100 parents last week and it showed that slightly more parents of primary aged kids and below said their kids had been off sick more than normal since September. However, parents said they themselves had been off work sick less than normal in that period. This was despite the high level of illness, including flu and Covid, that was circulating at the time. Seventy-two per cent said they had gone to work while sick. Although most said their employer had been sympathetic, nearly a third of parents said their workplace had not been understanding when they had taken time off sick for their kids. Fifty-two per cent said they had had to use unpaid parental leave to cover child sickness.

Of those who said their workplace had not been understanding, several said they had had to leave their job as a result. Many stated that they felt anxious and stressed. Some had been threatened with disciplinary action. One said: “I have used sick days to cover children being sick, and gone into work when I am unwell. Things got so bad that I suffered a major anxiety episode and was signed off by my GP.”

Another mum of two said she has not only had to battle flu, Covid and the norovirus last year, but also her four-year-old daughter’s asthma attacks. She works part time in a school and says her manager is not sympathetic to working from home or time off, so much so that when her daughter had to go to a doctor’s appointment in the autumn she had a major panic attack and needed to call the employee assistance programme for counselling. They recommended she get signed off sick. She has just returned after several weeks off, although previously she has always worked through any personal sickness in order to cover her children’s sickness. She feels at breaking point and says she suffers from palpitations if she thinks her children are going to be ill. “As soon as I hear my daughter cough – even just a little – I give her the inhaler if it is on a working day,” she says. “I am always hypervigilant.”

The poll figures on working while sick are interesting, given employers haven’t noticed any particular rise in absence rates over the last year, according to data from BrightHR. Financial worries as well as pressure from employers are likely to be factors, given the cost of living crisis and changes to Statutory Sick Pay.

Absence rates are rising elsewhere, though. Data shared by Arbor Education, a management information system, show school staff absences doubled last term when compared with pre-Covid 2019, driven by a rise in flu and other winter illnesses. The figures show that between the autumn terms in 2019 and 2022, sickness absences rose by 110 per cent.

And official figures show absence rates among pupils also increased towards the end of the Autumn term, driven by illness, which during the week beginning 12th December 2022 was 9.1%, up from 2.6% at the start of the term. Before Covid, absence rates were significantly lower and had been declining.

So what can you do if your child is sick and you can’t work around them?

While the poll shows most employers have been supportive,  it is clear there is a big divide between those who are supportive and those who aren’t. But best practice pays off – in terms of retention, motivation and engagement.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, outlines what the legal position is, saying: “In situations where an employee’s child is sick, so they have to be off work to take care of them, employees are able to take emergency time off for dependents. There is no maximum or minimum time period for this leave, but it must be reasonable and is usually no longer than a few days. Employers should discuss requirements with the employee and, if long-term arrangements are necessary, compromise to reach an effective solution for all. This may involve temporarily amending duties to enable them to work from home or adjusting their normal working pattern. Where this isn’t possible, employers can consider allowing annual leave or unpaid leave to cover the time.”

She adds: “It’s no secret that Covid, flu and other seasonal health conditions are doing the rounds this year and, in turn, wiping out a significant chunk of the UK workforce. However, there are steps employers can take to minimise the impact. For example, providing hand sanitisers around the workplace and encouraging staff to use them; re-introducing social distancing measures; arranging all meetings to take place virtually rather than in-person; asking staff to wear a face covering; allowing staff to work from home if they, or their child, is unwell; and ensuring there is a robust absence management policy and procedure in place, which all employees are aware of.”

*Not her real name.

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