Since the start of the school term my two young children seem to have come down with every sickness bug going. I work full time (as does my partner) and am struggling to hold it all together; over the past few weeks I’ve taken seven days holiday to allow me to be at home with my children. My short-notice days off are raising eyebrows at work and my boss has openly commented on my attendance. I feel completely conflicted and stressed – I enjoy my work but need to be there for my children if they’re poorly. What can I do?
I really sympathise, with your situation. I meant to write my answer to your question yesterday, but instead spent the day looking after my sick two-year-old. It’s the time of year when bugs and germs spread around schools and nurseries like wildfire.
And the stress builds on many fronts; through concern for your child’s health, fears around your availability as a parent, pressure from commitments and work, and dealing with increasingly complicated logistics.
New research released this month, following a survey of 1,000 UK parents by digital GP service PushDoctor.co.uk, revealed that three million working days are lost caring for sick children each year. What's more, 67 per cent of parents have taken a day off in the last 12 months, and almost two-thirds (59 per cent) struggled to make last minute childcare arrangements. So you're not alone.
Share the responsibility
Working parents need well-laid plans, so it’s no surprise that any unexpected hurdle – particularly when it relates to your children’s’ health – can make you feel like your precarious balancing act has fallen over.
If you haven’t already done so, please have a frank discussion with your partner. You both work full-time, and you may both need to make adjustments. Even if there is limited scope for your partner to be doing much more in the way of helping out at home – perhaps due to a complex work or travel schedule - you need to share the responsibility of planning your family’s daily logistics, including how to deal with emergency scenarios and ‘back-up’ solutions.
Together, make sure you’re exploring every possible option to ensure you and your partner have the resource and support necessary to allow both of you to focus on your children – whose health and wellbeing are paramount – as well as on your jobs, enabling the two of you to navigate these challenges as best you can.
What to think about
Here are some potential avenues you may wish to consider:
- You don’t have to use your holiday entitlement: All employees have the right to reasonable time off during working hours for dependents, allowing workers to deal with unforeseen situations and emergencies. Plus there’s also a right to parental leave (not to be confused with shared parental leave). Both rights are unpaid, unless your firm includes a pay allowance in your terms of employment – check out ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) advice here, look at your employment contract or speak to your HR department.
- Investigate short-term emergency childcare options: Understandably, nurseries and childminders won’t take a child who’s unwell. But there are in-home childcare solutions that may work for you on a temporary basis; companies like Sitters and Emergency Childcare can provide a nanny or babysitter at short notice, meaning your child can be looked after in their own home - a good solution if you have unavoidable work commitments. Some companies offer emergency childcare as an employee benefit, so do check out if this is the case for you.
- Seek help from family and friends: It may not be easy to find someone you know to look after one of your children when they’re ill. But consider what other forms of help they could provide, such as helping with pick-ups for other children. Remember – don’t ask, don’t get.
- Speak to your boss: However understanding she or he may want to be, short-notice changes in an employee’s availability can be hard to manage, particularly for a small firm. You need to be open about the challenges you’re facing and emphasise your commitment to both your home and work responsibilities. Make sure you’re communicating clearly with colleagues, too.
- Ask for flexibility: Find out if your firm can offer you any flexibility; allowing you working from home if your child is unwell, or altering your hours on affected days, as an alternative to taking time off. Make sure you’ve thought through how your suggestion will work in practice and that you can provide appropriate reassurance and evidence - including how you’ll stay in touch with work and what childcare will be in place.
- Make a back-up plan for key projects: It’s critical you plan for unexpected changes in your home-life logistics, and you need to do the same at the office. Consider what support is available from colleagues and how you could delegate work if you have to; if you’re leading a major piece of work and need to step away suddenly to deal with an issue at home, do you have a named delegate in place? Communication, again, is key.
A combination, or even all, of the above, should help you be as prepared as possible when (I’m sorry I can’t say ‘if’) it happens again.
Louisa Symington-Mills works in private equity as a COO and is founder and CEO of Citymothers and Cityfathers, networks of more than 6,000 parents in City careers. She is The Telegraph's careers agony aunt. Email your work and business questions to: [email protected] Louisa cannot print answers to every single question submitted, but she does read all your emails. Please note that by submitting your question to Louisa, you are giving your permission for her to use your question as the basis of her column, published online at Wonder Women. All questions will be kept anonymous and key details, facts and figures may change to protect your identity. Louisa can only answer based on the information you give her and her advice is not a substitute for legal advice.