NEWS

The Impact of “Sick Season” on Working Parents

mother working with sleeping child in lap
mother working with sleeping child.

Svetlana Lakusheva

Key Takeaways

  • Parents’ work life is significantly impacted when a child is sick, with an average of 4 days of work being affected.
  • Mothers are more than twice as likely to take unpaid leave than fathers, according to a new study.
  • Parents who had a sick infant in the past month were 60% more likely to report clinically depressive symptoms than those who did not.

Just when the pandemic seemed to be slowing down, this fall and winter brought an onslaught of RSV, flu, and COVID-19—now dubbed the “tripledemic." Caring for sick children at home isn't easy and can often be a juggling act between caregivers and their jobs.

Caring for sick children also affects parents’ mental health. A study by the Nanit Lab revealed that parents who had a sick infant in the past month were 60% more likely to report clinically depressive symptoms than those who did not have a sick child in the past month.

Parents Work Impacted When Kids Are Sick

We can all identify with the stress that a sick child can cause. Not only are we as parents concerned for our children, but we often have to figure out the balance between taking care of that child and our work.

According to new research from the Nanit Lab, parents’ work was affected for an average of four days when their child was sick. Almost 52% of parents took a combination of paid leave, parental leave, or vacation days. About 13% took unpaid leaves, 24% worked remotely and 11.5% used a combination of different types of leaves when their child was sick.

“Many families are being impacted by the increased spread of viruses among children. In our sample of approximately 900 parents, 17% reported that their child had been sick with Covid, flu, or RSV in the previous month,” says Dr. Natalie Barnett, vice president of clinical research at Nanit.

The study showed mothers saw an even greater impact and were more than twice as likely to take unpaid leave than fathers. They were also 23% more likely than fathers to work remotely to look after a sick child.

On the other hand, fathers were more likely to take paid leave than mothers. The division of labor is even starker with the typical breakdown of caregiving. Twenty-three percent of children were taken care of by just their mothers, 76% by both the mother and the father, but none were taken care of by just fathers. Fathers’ parenting remained largely unaffected by pandemic‐related changes in their work situation.

Office Work vs Remote Work

The increase in remote work during the COVID pandemic has changed the employment landscape. Parents can often work from home when a child is sick and may not have to take a day off like they would have pre-pandemic.

“Approximately 25% of the families decided to work remotely to take care of their sick children,” says Maristella Lucchini, PhD, a senior clinical researcher at Nanit. She says this option can provide increased flexibility for many families. Still, it can definitely increase the stress of parents who feel pulled in different directions, having to take care of their babies while at the same time being productive at work. 

If you're working remotely and have sick young kids at home, chances are you're not going to be getting much work done. “I have heard from many moms that they're up working late into the night to manage their workload when kids are at home and they don't have any additional sick days,” says Jessica Grose, an author, and opinion writer at The New York Times.

Grose says in terms of office work, or any job that must be done in person, it's really tough to find caregivers for sick kids, because no one else wants to get sick or spread illness.

The Mental Health Toll of Caring For Sick Kids

When a child is sick, the parent takes on additional roles, like caregiving around the clock. This includes checking temperature, monitoring breathing, and observing their child’s behavior more closely to make sure they’re eating and sleeping normally. These anxiety-filled tasks in managing a child’s emotions and behavior at home can increase parental stress. 

“We experienced the 'tripledemic' long before it was widely recognized as such so it was rather isolating for my family,” shared Terri Huggins, a parent and freelance writer. “My oldest son got sick with RSV during the second week of school in September. We experienced almost continuous sickness of RSV, rhinovirus, flu, and ear infections from mid-September to mid-November.”  

Huggins says that it was stressful caring for him, managing work, and trying to keep her 3-year-old away from his older brother so he could avoid sickness. As the default caregiving parent, it ultimately impacted Huggins’ work schedule and made her “me-time” nearly non-existent. She was losing sleep and working very late hours.

“The caregiver's stress and burden levels are at an all-time high while trying to balance work with home life, where work and personal life boundaries are blurred, while also coordinating care for cyclical sickness in the home,” says Irene Biscante-Smith, NBC-HWC, the senior director and head of pediatric coaching at Brightline.

The caregiver's stress and burden levels are at an all-time high while trying to balance work with home life, where work and personal life boundaries are blurred, while also coordinating care for cyclical sickness in the home.

IRENE BISCANTE-SMITH, NBC-HWC

Parents are not immune to sickness themselves, so they may also be worried about their own physical health being impacted as well. “The cognitive load, social skill set, and physical strain of these roles on parents can add up quickly and can push parents to experience burnout in all levels, from physical to emotional, mental, and social,” Biscante-Smith shared. 

The Nanit study showed that 63% of the parents reported the period while their child was sick was very or extremely stressful. About 13% of the parents with sick children reported clinical levels of depression symptoms. This was more than 60% higher than the levels amongst parents with healthy children.

Forty percent of the parents said their sick child had trouble falling asleep at the beginning of the night, which might shorten the time available for parents to recharge after a long day. Sleep didn't improve once their children got better—45% of parents said it took one week or more for their child’s sleep to get back to normal after being sick.

Balancing Work With Your Child's Care

Some people have a habit of only optimizing mental health when it's already in the gutter. “It would help to prepare for those bad days when you are already having good days," advises Huggins. "Just like we know there's going to be financial emergencies, there's going to be mental health emergencies too.” She suggests when times are good, we document what makes us feel good and how we cope. That way when you aren't sound, you know what works.

Smith suggests parents rally all the support available to them. Keep an inventory of individuals ready to come to your rescue and give people a job to help manage any burdens. 

When it comes to working, talk to your manager about reasonable expectations. A clear scope of responsibilities, deliverables, and timeliness is important. Putting structures in place will help with the anxiety and help drive more focused task completions.

Be okay with asking for help. Then understand how your employer can support you with accommodations when your child is sick or struggling. Hopefully, your manager or HR can help with this.

“Simplify when life is overwhelming," advises Biscante-Smith. She suggests the antidote to being overwhelmed is getting back to those basic needs and asking yourself some of these questions:

  • What do I really need to do today? Often, we overcomplicate by adding self-imposed must-dos and urgency.
  • Who can do this task just as well as I can? Good enough is still good.
  • How can I take care of myself, so I can then also take care of others? Self-care is often last on the list. Change this.

Sharing Responsibility With Your Partner

Many families with two caregivers are able to share the increased workload when a child is sick, but not all of them. In 75% of families, both mothers and fathers took time off work or worked remotely to care for their sick infants. But for 25% of families, it was just the mother. “We don't have enough data on single-parent households to be able to talk about the impact on single parents,” says Dr. Barnett.

“I do think that things can be equitable, I don't know that they can be equal," shares Grose. "What I mean by that is to me, equitable means fair, and I think you can have both sides of a couple feel that their division of labor is fair.” 

Huggins suggests it could also help if partners managed the mental burden usually taken up by the default parent. If the partner isn't there to help care for sick kids physically, small things can make a BIG difference to a default parent struggling to do it all. These tasks could include stocking snack drawers, refilling water cups, maintaining the medicine cabinet and dispensing tools, and notifying the school if the kids are out sick.

What This Means For You

It can be scary and stressful when you have a little one who is sick. You're not alone. Caring for sick children can affect your work life and your mental health, according to a new study. It's a delicate balance for sure. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging your limits, asking for, and accepting help. And don't be afraid to seek professional advice when you feel it may be necessary.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Pew Research. Mothers are 3 times more likely than fathers to have lost jobs in pandemic.

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By Taayoo Murray
Taayoo is a New York City-based writer and boy mom who writes about family, health & wellness, and lifestyle. Her work has been published in national publications like Parents, Health, Huffpost Well, Verywell Health, Yahoo Life, Business Insider, New York Times Kids, Giddy, and others.