Pretty much every child in the UK is either coughing their head off, streaming with snot or getting over a stomach bug right now – and the juggle for working parents is real.
This is particularly the case if you’re lacking in the family support department and you don’t have the luxury of being able to take unpaid time off (because let’s face it, who can afford that right now?).
This lucky group are blessed with the horrible no-mans-land that is working and caring for your very poorly child – and feeling like you’re doing a rubbish job of both.
Of course, this isn’t a new plight. Lots of parents have trodden this well-worn path over the years, especially during Covid times. So we asked those who’ve been there, done that and got the snot-covered t-shirts to dish the dirt on how they’ve bossed (or should we say, survived) the ultimate juggle of them all.
Here are their tips.
1. Be open and realistic with the people you work with
Let’s face it, the likelihood of you getting your typical amount of work done in addition to trying to care for a small, poorly child is slim – so it’s time to manage expectations and be realistic.
“Communicate with your team, manager, clients – let them know [you are working from home because your child is ill] and say you will let them know if anything changes,” says mum-of-two Sarah Almond Bushell, who is 46 and based in Eastbourne.
Sarah Almond Bushell: 'Communicate with your team'
The registered dietitian and founder of The Children’s Nutritionist, who has lots of experience working at home while her kids have either been off school or home-learning, adds: “You could also try and predict how long they might be ill and maybe change some meetings, calls and distribute some of your workload to keep projects on track.”
You absolutely shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help at work – the same goes with home stuff too. So if you’re up to your eyeballs in housework, get partners and older siblings to pitch in a bit more. Times are tough, so all hands should be on deck.
2. Cancel meetings
“I’ve made the mistake so many times of trying to power on through and do meetings,” says Catherine Warrilow, 43, from Oxford, who has two boys aged nine and 14, and works from home three days a week as the managing director at daysout.com.
She suggests not even trying to attend meetings, if you can. Simply postpone the meeting to another time or let people know you won’t be attending – you could send them some action points and updates by email instead.
“Despite the fact that the world is far more accommodating of kids in teams meetings now, I’d say save yourself the stress,” she says. “Be honest, ask a colleague to share your updates for you, and if it’s a really important one, ask them to record the call so you can catch up later.”
3. Block out your time
Celebrity publicist Brenda Gabriel, who has three children, is a big fan of time-blocking. “Set your day up into blocks of time where you may allow your sick child to watch a film, go on their tablet or they’re likely to sleep for a set period of time,” she explains.
“Set up deep or more challenging work during the time your child is less likely to need your undivided attention.”
She adds it’s often easier to get more done in a shorter space of time when you’re aware of how much time you have to complete a task.
Brenda Gabriel with her two children: 'Set your day up into blocks of time'
4. Utilise nap-time to get sh*t done
Ok so your plans for the day have turned on their head – what can you do about it? Is there any way you can clock on earlier than usual to get some work done before your child wakes up? Or can you catch up on your work later when they’re in bed?
If not, nap time might be your saving grace. It’s something Sinead Haycox, 33, from Manchester, does. She recently returned to work from maternity leave and has already had to navigate a multitude of toddler illnesses including three bouts of RSV.
Haycox says the company she works for, Interact Software, has been “amazing” at supporting her through these tough times, as they’ve allowed her to work flexibly – “that has been helpful,” she says, “particularly as my son has been hospitalised with RSV in the past, and has recently been picking every bug up at nursery.”
5. Set boundaries (and don’t be afraid to push things back!)
If you’ve got a tonne of stuff on your plate it’s time to prioritise what has to be done today and push anything less urgent back, suggests Caroline Marshall, 34, who is based in London.
“Go through your ‘to do’ list, calendar or inbox and see what you can delay to after bedtime or – even better – another day,” says the founder of Upsource, who has two children aged two and four.
“Don’t try and do everything! We aren’t meant to parent AND work at laptops at the same time.”
6. Keep your child close by
Sometimes you can actually get more work done if your child is situated nearby – as multiple parents can attest.
Catherine Warrilow, mum of two boys, recommends finding somewhere comfy to work so your child is happy and you can sit with them. “Surround yourself with everything you might need ready: snacks, drinks, iPad, tissues, medicine,” she suggests. “Get yourself a survival kit going on so you’re not dashing about trying to locate the Calpol.”
Daniella Genas, 38, is a business growth strategist and has been working from her home in Birmingham for around 15 years now, so she’s a seasoned professional. If her daughter, who is now seven, is sick, she’ll endeavour to work in close proximity to her, too.
There’s no working from desks on days like these. “I put my daughter in my bed and work on the bed beside her,” she explains. “When they can see you, it usually placates them a little.”
7. Don’t feel guilty about screen-time
If you need to get some work done and your child has finished napping, don’t feel guilty for sticking them in front of the TV or an iPad so you can get stuff done. Ok so your child may well be on their 30th episode of Hey Duggee or Peppa Pig, but that doesn’t make you a bad parent.
Genas is a firm believer in letting kids use tablets or laptops with headphones to watch their favourite shows while she completes meetings or gets “deep work” done that requires a little more concentration.
Warrilow agrees and urges parents to “park the parenting guilt” when you’re navigating the ultimate juggle.“If there’s a whole load of screen-time going on, don’t stress,” she adds. “Same goes for snacks.”
8. Snacks will keep everyone happy
When your little one is ill they might not have their usual appetite. You might even find they don’t want to eat full stop. If this is the case, try to give them what you know they love. Any food is better than no food right now.
Yes that means if your child is turning their nose up at the lovely and nourishing soup you made them, chances are they’ll probably accept plain pasta or biscuits.
“It’s absolutely fine to offer them their favourites rather than trying to get them to eat new food or healthier alternatives,” says dietician Sarah Almond Bushell.
“When appetites are small, any food eaten is important for nutrition.”
It’s really important to focus on getting fluids down them when they’re poorly, but this is easier said than done when you’re trying to focus on a billion work things. The dietitian suggests setting an alarm as a reminder for your little one to drink – or using a bottle that monitors intake.
9. Look after yourself
Last but in no way least, if you are WFH with a sick child, remember to be kind to yourself. It’s probably one of the hardest juggles and you can end up feeling like a failure on multiple counts (we get it), but actually you are doing a sterling job.
“If your little one is ill, chances are so are you – or you have been – or you are running on lower energy levels due to lack of sleep and worry,” says Sarah Almond Bushell.
“Caring for sick kids whilst managing everything else can be tiring, set aside time to take care of yourself - rest, eat right and drink lots of fluids.”