Work + sickness = stress
Stress – the modern definition represented by the mother trying to combine working and little children. Because, as sure as God made little green apples, the day you absolutely have to be on the job, is the day your darling comes to you and says, ‘Mummy, I’ve got a tummy ache.’
It sounds great in practice, but, like oil and water, sometimes the combination of parenthood and career just don't mix. Some days it's hard enough just making it to work on time, but just what do you tell your boss when your child is sick and you can't come in at all?
Sometimes it's hard to be professional when you're a parent. Your employer might forgive the Picasso-esque splattering of Farex on that important report you're due to file. They might even forgive your lateness (for the third time this month)because the traffic on the way to pre-school was a nightmare.
But what happens when your child is too ill for child care or school? When they need a trip to the doctor's office or a day home with Mum or Dad administering cough syrup and chicken noodle soup? When you need time off work to look after them?
According to the June 1999 Australian Bureau of Statistics report on work and family life, 1,411,200 women (approximately 17% of the total population) with dependent children are also in the workforce. That adds up to a lot of potentially disrupted working lives when all those dependent children are struck down with the inevitable childhood illness.
At Rocking Horse Child-Minding Centre and Kindergarten in Melbourne's Box Hill, Co-Director, Christine Newell, 29, can understand the problem from both sides. As a mum herself (her two young children have attended her own child care centre from six-weeks old), she claims to be lucky and says her children have remained almost disease-resistant suffering little more than the common cold.
Christine suggests some exposure to childcare could be one way to ease the stresses a working parent faces. 'It helps children build up an immunity and it's also good for separation anxiety,' she says.
So rather than introduce them to care the day you make your triumphant return to the employment world, an occasional day at child care some months before may get the colds out of the way while you've still got time to care for them at home.
Of course it doesn't always work out that way though. Children in care or at school will bring something home eventually, no matter how well their immunity is developed. And when they do, Christine has seen the stresses placed on working parents dealing with sick kids and the lengths some parents will go to in order to avoid taking time off work.
'One little boy came here with a whole lot of sores around mouth and his Mum said it was just a blood nose,' Christine says. 'A lot of people try to tell us their children aren't as sick as they are, because they can’t afford to miss work.
Sometimes it's because they work casually or do shiftwork and they can’t lose the income, but sometimes I think it's people in fairly high-pressured jobs who are just too paranoid to take the time off work, in case it somehow ruins their reputation with their boss.'
So they end up lying. But lying to people like Christine Newell is compromising other people's children, as well as your own. It may seem strict, but in order to protect all children, your childcare service may ask you for a doctor’s certificate to prove that your child is not contagious.
Working mother, Clare, 28, remembers a time when her nine-month old son, Jordan, developed conjunctivitis, just as she getting him ready for child care. 'I'd had the day before off and of course he'd been fine. They always seem to get sick on your work days, and because I worked casually, I thought my boss might just think it was easier to hire someone without children,' she says.
Clare did get the day off, but after that her shifts at the clothing store began to mysteriously dwindle, in favour of a younger, childless worker with no commitments. 'It's really hard trying to deal with work and raise children. You need an employer who can be flexible,' Clare says.
As a nurse, and a single mum, Kim, 32, remembers a time when her asthmatic and allergy-prone son Nicholas, 12, was younger and she was also trying to juggle work and parenting with the wild card of her child's illness.
Kim says, 'I gave my employer two weeks notice when Nicholas had a specialist appointment. Even though I gave the notice, and was honest about the reason, she didn’t view it as important and was angry. From then on I lied – I used up my sick days instead. It really frustrated me that I had to lie, but it was easier.'
Kim eventually left her permanent position and took up agency work. She now registers her available times from week to week and is able to work around Nicholas's occasional doctor's appointments.
According to Kim, many of her friends who are also working parents have had similar experiences. 'I don't know what the solution is,' she says. 'You hear about employers who will be friendly and offer time as holiday pay, or time in lieu, but I don't know anyone who actually does it. I think it's just a myth. These are just the stresses you have to put up with when you're a parent.'
Are all employers so unsympathetic, or are these situations out of the ordinary?
Anne, 43, and the mother of three primary school-aged children, works permanent part-time at a large city department store. Anne says, ‘On the day the I was due to return to work after three glorious weeks off with my family, my daughter fell from the monkey bars at school and broke her arm. My cringing phone call to work went along the lines of ‘you’re never going to believe this BUT…’ My colleagues on the sales floor were very sympathetic and both they and the personnel department took the attitude that your child comes first.’
Ellie, 39, also feels that she works for a flexible, family-friendly organisation. In a high-pressure job which involves the management of other staff, she says it’s never a good time to be off with sick children. ‘I’m in a fortunate position because I can work at home if my children are sick. I can access my files and email remotely from my home computer and keep working.’
But management aren’t the only ones to have flexible arrangements. Ellie says, ‘We have a buddy system in place where each member of the team has another person who is able to maintain their work schedule for short periods when they need time off for family reasons.’
The reality for employers is that many of their workers are also parents. Putting in place flexible, family-friendly options before the need arises makes good sense. Removing the stress of managing sick children can only make for a more effective work force.
Exclusion From Childcare
Health regulations don’t allow sick children to attend child care services or schools because of the high risk of cross-infection. Children must be excluded while suffering from the following diseases for the periods stated. Your service or school may require a doctor's certificate before a child can return.
For full information on exclusions visit Staying healthy in childcare – preventing infectious diseases in child care (4th edition) is also available to download.
Chicken Pox - exclude until all blisters have dried. This is usually at least 5 days after the rash first appeared in unimmunised children and less in immunised children.
Conjunctivitis - exclude until the discharge from the eyes has stopped unless doctor has diagnosed a non-infectious conjunctivitis
Diarrhoea/cryptosporidium - exclude until there has not been a loose bowel motion for 24 hours.
Head lice - exclusion is NOT necessary if effective treatment is commenced prior to the next day at child care (ie the child doesn’t need to be sent home immediately if head lice are detected).
Hepatitis A - exclude until a medical certificate of recovery is received, but not before seven days after the onset of jaundice.
Impetigo - exclude until appropriate antibiotic treatment has commenced. Any sores on exposed skin should be covered with a watertight dressing.
Influenza - exclude until well.
Rubella (German Measles) - exclude until fully recovered or for at least four days after the onset of the rash.
Ringworm - exclude until the day after appropriate antifungal treatment has commenced
Rotavirus - children are to be excluded from the centre until there has not been a loose bowel motion or vomiting for 24 hours.
Measles - exclude for 4 days after the onset of the rash.
Mumps - exclude for nine days after onset of swelling.
Pertussis (Whooping Cough) - exclude until five days after starting appropriate antibiotic treatment, or for 21 days from the onset of coughing.
By Claire Halliday
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, October 2000, Updated July 2009.