When children get sick, all working parents face the same dilemma: send them to daycare or take the day off work?
The balance between work commitments and caring for sick children is especially evident for preschoolers, who are more prone to illness.
Plunket chief nurse Dr Jane O’Malley says it is common for children to have between five and seven colds a year.
“Infants’ and young children’s immune systems learn by being exposed to infections and over time they develop greater immunity. Immunisations work much the same way.”
She says when children spend time with other children at home, in playgroups, or in early childhood centres they came into contact with others and shared toys. Children also tend to place items in their mouths, thereby contaminating the objects and spreading disease.
Retail manager Shari Adair’s son started daycare when he was four months old.
“Pretty much within the first month he had his first cold, and it seemed like he would have one after another for the first year.”
She used all her sick leave within the first few months of returning from maternity leave, then relied on annual leave entitlements.
“I was breastfeeding at the time so it was important to me to give my son breast milk when he was sick.”
Early childhood education supervisor Janet Oswald says it is very common for children to get sick when starting daycare.
“When I went back to work after my son was born, he had a couple of days off due to a cold. At the time, he was only breastfed so I had to take time off too. It was really challenging because I had literally only just returned and it felt like I was letting my centre down.”
She says employers need to be more realistic and provide more sick leave.
“If your child gets chicken pox, they need to be off school or preschool for at least a week. That’s all your sick leave gone in one go.”
Legal executive Helen Brasier has two daughters, with the eldest starting daycare at about 10 months old.
“She definitely got sick more often that first year and we have suffered many more tummy bugs that we would have pre-kids.”
She says she has a “very family-focused, supportive” workplace that allows her to work from home and be flexible with hours.
“I know how fortunate I am and how rare it is to have such an understanding employer. All employers could be like mine.
Brasier says it was also important to note that fathers were capable of taking time off work to be with children.
“It shouldn’t be that mothers are ‘expected’ to take time off. So employers and management could set an example in this regard.”
In her spare time Brasier also runs Virtually You, a social media management business.
“It definitely puts extra pressure on me when the kids are sick. I’m lucky I can work while they’re sleeping and my clients are very understanding if I need to switch off and be with my children.”
Adair says her workplace was understanding at first, but the pressure to be at work weighed on her mind.
“I went in to work, even when I was feeling really rubbish, if my son was feeling fine. I felt like I couldn’t take any time off to get myself better because I was already off so much with my son.”
Adair says she feels working parents are in a “tricky situation” when it comes to juggling work with sick children.
“You feel like you can’t give your work 100 percent of your attention because your child is sick. But I also feel guilty because I’ve sent my son into daycare when he’s not feeling 100 percent because of the pressure of work.”
Dr O’Malley suggests parents clarify with their employers what their policy is for sick leave and taking time off when children are unwell.
“Planning for these situations is also good. Depending on the illness, parents may be able to work with family members to help support them by looking after children for short periods if needed.”
The Ministry of Education requires all early childhood education centres to have robust policies and procedures for health and safety, and hygiene.
“It is really great to have a conversation with your childcare provider to understand what they are seeing, how they are talking to children about hygiene and what communication is going out to parents,” Dr O’Malley says.
Brasier says although sickness is common in early childhood centres, they offer a great service for families who must return to work.
“The teachers are great and are so dedicated. I’m hoping my girls’ years at daycare will have equipped them with great immunity when they go to primary school.”