Back to resources

Help! I need to take time off work for a sick child

When coughs and colds season strikes, it can be a stressful time for working parents, especially if you need to take time off work for a sick child. You want to be there for your poorly child, but you may also feel pressured about letting work down or missing important meetings. This feeling can be enhanced if you’re a single parent or if you work part-time, so what can you do when you need time off for a sick child?

Firstly, let’s put it out there… sickness in children is unavoidable! Therefore, absence from work due to child sickness is going to be unavoidable too, unless you’ve got a solid back up plan. The early years often seem to be the most challenging as this is usually when childhood illnesses like chickenpox strike, and these tend to last longer than a couple of days. Sickness is a sign your child is building up antibodies for the future, so it’s an important part of growing up, even if it is hard to see your child suffering.

In terms of juggling that alongside work, it’s best if you can prepare for missing work to care for a sick child and have an idea in place as to how you will manage when you have to take time off work.

Time off for emergencies

 In the UK, workers are entitled to take leave to care for a dependent or a sick child in an emergency. An emergency can count as illness, injury or assault, disruption of childcare arrangements like a nursery closing suddenly, or if your child is involved in an incident at school like a fight or if they are injured on a school trip.

You can’t take time off in this way if you knew about the situation beforehand. The time you take must be a ‘reasonable amount’ depending on the situation. Your employer may pay you during this time, but they don’t have to. Check your contract to see if there are rules about this.

If you need time off to take a child to the doctor because they feel unwell, this is slightly different and counts as Parental Leave.

Unpaid Parental Leave

Parental Leave can be taken by eligible employees to attend to their child’s welfare for often exceptional circumstances such as looking at new schools, settling children into new childcare arrangements and visiting grandparents. This is limited to four weeks a year for each child and you’re entitled to eighteen weeks’ leave for each child up to their 18th birthday. This time off must be taken as whole weeks rather than individual days unless your employer agrees otherwise or if your child is disabled.

As with emergencies, Parental Leave does not have to be paid by employers and depends on your contract, so it’s worth checking this out before you take on a new role.

In addition to taking a reasonable amount of time off work for emergencies or taking unpaid parental leave, there are a few other things you can do as a working parent to relieve the stress around what to do when your child is sick.

1. Decide your family sickness policy

Where there are two parents in a household, ask yourselves before your child gets sick, who is best suited to take a day or two of leave when required. It’s super stressful if you and your partner can’t make a decision over who is going to ring in sick when necessary and can even lead to arguments when both partners feel their day will be impacted the most if they take a day off.

It’s best if you can have a plan in place before illness strikes to avoid any disagreements like this – and stick to it. If one person in a relationship travels a lot with their job, for example, it might make more sense for the other person to be first port of call to take a day off. If one parent is a contractor, they may not get paid for taking time off or, if there’s a view that taking leave at short notice could jeopardise a role for the long-term, it might be a better solution for the full-time member of staff to take the leave.

2. Have a solid back-up plan

Where both parents have professional jobs, it’s a good idea to have a support network in place to help save the day when the unexpected happens. Not everyone has local grandparents to help step in when transport is delayed or when a poorly child needs collecting from school. For those that do, the pressure is lifted somewhat.

However, close friends or emergency childminders are a good place to start when juggling childcare and jobs. Although sick children often want their own parents when they’re poorly, if you have a highly pressurised role or work shifts, it might not be possible to take time off that easily so it’s worth having a safety net in place to help you fulfil work commitments.

3. Talk to your boss

If you’re a single parent or if you find your child is frequently unwell, if could be an idea to talk to your line manager about the stress of having a sick child. If an employer understands that you have a backup plan in place and that you’ve exhausted all avenues of childcare, you may find they’re sympathetic to your situation.

Your manager may even have been in a similar position and have ideas about how you can work remotely or shift work around to help you. This may not be an option for everyone, but if you have an understanding boss, it can be a lot easier breaking the news that you need to take time off to care for a sick child.

4. Explore flexible working

When full-time work becomes stressful and you feel like your colleagues are picking up slack because of your absences, it could be worth considering your flexible working options. Part-time workers often work fewer hours so they don’t have massive childcare bills in the holidays. Yes, you will earn less, but it may be offset by the childcare bills. Reduced hours can help to give families a bit of leeway if their children have to miss school.

If you work a three-day week, for example, it means you only have to cover three working days if your child has to have a week off school due to illness and you may be able to move around your three working days. In addition, a job share can be a great way to find a supportive person to share difficult times with. Single parents may find this is useful as you will always have a colleague who can be flexible and have your back should you need to take time off to care for a sick child.

5. Look for flexibility at work

Talk to your employer about flexibility at work as well. This is different to flexible working and requires bosses to focus on your output rather than presenteeism and set, rigid ways of working. For example, if you work a 4-day week and your employer can be flexible on what days of the week you work, you can swap days over if needs be. So if your child is sick on Monday, you can ask to take Monday instead of your usual Friday off to make up the time then.

Many employees work from home when their child is poorly, once they are past the early years. If you know you have an important project on, see if you can swap tasks that day and save the more involved work for when you are back in the office or child-free. Taking time off for a sick child is inevitable

At the end of the day, according to the Office of National Statistics, more than half of employees in the UK have children and with more women in the workplace than ever before (in 2019, 75% of mothers and almost 93% of fathers were in work), we need to open up the conversation about how stressful this can be for employees. Tell yourself, it’s normal for your child to be off sick; you shouldn’t feel like you have to lie and say you are the poorly one in their place.

Many children have sleepless nights when they are ill and this will possibly impact your productivity, so remember, time off with your child will not only probably help them to recover more quickly, it will help you to come back stronger when the sickness has passed.

If you’d like to find a new flexible role to help you manage the demands of parenthood, please contact flexible and part-time recruitment agency Ten2Two. Here’s to a healthy year ahead…and if not, remember, it’s all normal!


8 min read