Your Child Is Off Sick – Here's What Leave You Can Take And Who Stays At Home

"But I have to go to work in the morning..."

There’s nothing quite like the sinking feeling you get when your child wakes up in the middle of the night with a temperature, whining: “I don’t feel very well”.

If you’re anything like me – just last week when I was vomited on at 3am by a poorly two-year-old – your first thought will be, “please don’t let it be anything serious”. But the second is always: “I have to go to work in the morning!”

For many parents, particularly those without back-up from a partner, relative or alternative childcare options, having to call in sick on behalf of your child can be more than inconvenient. It can mean losing a day’s wages, throwing the monthly bills into disarray. It can mean worrying about annoying or letting down your boss or colleagues, or missing out on a key meeting, event or important call – all the while feeling an enormous dose of parental guilt.

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And if it’s something that lasts for more than a day – like chicken pox – it can leave you wondering how you’re going to cope, especially if you’re on a zero-hours contract. So, what are your rights at work – and if there are two of you with parental responsibility, how do you decide who takes the day off?

I spoke to some parents who told me how it works for them, and it probably won’t surprise you to hear that it isn’t easy... for anyone. Those in care worker roles, such as doctors, nurses, teachers and carers, find it particularly hard.

One parent, a GP, said that in her case it’s always her husband who takes time out of his job in banking to look after their children when they’re ill.

“He works full-time and I’m part-time, but his job is amenable to working from home,” she said. “There’s usually far more people affected when I cancel – I have 36 patient calls per day – so I only ever call in sick if I’m too unwell to work. He can cancel and move things to another day or call in to meetings. If he has something really important to do, we call a grandparent, or a babysitter.”

The only exception, she said, would be if one of the children was really poorly: “When my son was admitted to hospital, I stayed home as I felt emotionally unable to leave him and was too upset to be able to function at work.”

Another mum, a teacher, said the nature of her job meant it was her husband, a floor manager, who takes the day off when necessary. “If I take the day off, it means the school has to scramble around to find a supply teacher to cover my class of 30 kids,” she said. “My husband has some flexibility to work from home, so we’ll do that. But if he really can’t, then I’ll take a day off.”

But for many – such as single or stay-at-home parents – delegating responsibility simply isn’t an option. “It’s always me,” one stay-at-home mum told me. “Unfortunately, that means it’s always me even if I’m sick, too! My husband is a contractor so doesn’t get paid unless he’s in work. Family help is invaluable, but we don’t have that either, as my mum still works full-time.”

And for some, there simply isn’t any alternative – because they want to be the ones who look after the kids. “It’s always me as my husband works away a lot,” one mother said. “But before, it was also always me because I wanted to. I wanted to be the one to look after them when they were sick. I just felt like I needed to – and that work was less important, however busy I was. This may have been a reflection of the fact that my feeling towards my job were changing, but I just couldn’t face leaving them when they were ill.”

Wondering how you’ll manage should your child become sick can be a worry in itself. An A&E doctor who’s only been on maternity leave for six weeks told me she didn’t know how she would handle it when she returned to her job. “I have no idea how we’ll cope when I’m back doing 12-hour shifts,” she said.

It might help knowing what your rights are in the first place.

What Leave Are You Entitled To Take?

Legally, as a full or part-time employee, when your child gets sick – or if there’s an emergency – you are entitled to take ‘reasonable time off’. There’s no set time period for this. What’s more, an ‘emergency’ can include unexpected incidents involving children at school – such as your child becoming injured or distressed, or even getting suspended.

You should tell your employer as soon as possible if you need time off and you don’t have to do this in writing or give written proof. However, your boss may ask you to take a period of annual leave or unpaid parental leave to cover it.

This is because your employer does not have to pay you for time off to look after dependants. You should check your contract, company handbook or intranet site to see if there are rules about this.

And you should definitely check your employment status to see if you’re classed as an ‘employee’, because these rules don’t apply to those who are self-employed or members of the armed forces.

One other option your employer might suggest is taking a period of ‘compassionate leave’ – which can be either paid or unpaid, and is usually reserved for emergencies. Again, it’s worth checking what you’re entitled to before those sneezes and sniffles start so you’re ready when they do.