Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

How Working Parents Cope with the Care of Sick Young Children

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

How Working Parents Cope with the Care of Sick Young Children

Article excerpt


Previous research in Australia and overseas confirms that the care of sick children is a major cause of working parent stress. Licensed providers are governed by state regulations regarding operating procedures and health precautions. Children with acute illnesses usually cannot be sent to child care centres and must be picked up quickly by parents if they develop symptoms while at the centre. Further, employers of parents may be less than sympathetic to absences of employees obliged to take sick children home.

Young children need constant care and close supervision. They may get sick at short notice, disrupting previous institutional child care arrangements, which means a parent must stay home to take care of them. In single-parent homes, or homes in which both parents work, parenting responsibilities may often conflict with employed work responsibilities. Considering the large number of working parents, this is a widespread problem.

Literature review

An early Australian survey (Ochiltree & Greenblat, 1991) revealed that the majority of employed mothers wanted changes in the workplace or their working conditions that would make it easier to care for sick children. Ochiltree and Greenblat (1991) expressed an interest in either some special form of leave or the right to officially take their own sick leave. They also wanted more understanding of their situation from the employer.

The Ochiltree and Greenblat (1991) study was drawn from a total pool of 728 mothers interviewed. Five-hundred-and-ninety-one mothers had been in the paid workforce at some time between the birth of a child and the time that child started school. The 591 mothers were asked several questions about how they had usually cared for their children when they had been sick during working hours. Almost 57 per cent of mothers usually took time off to care for their children if they were sick during their usual working hours. In only seven per cent of cases did the father take time off to care for a sick child. Relatives, mostly grandmothers, cared for sick children in 17 per cent of cases, and about 15 per cent of children, mostly in informal care, remained in their normal child care arrangements. The decision about who should care for the child often depended on the perceived severity of the illness, whether other carers were available, and sometimes on the amount of personal leave due to the parents. While fathers played some part in the care of sick children, mothers took major responsibility, deciding how ill the child was and making appropriate arrangements.

In 1992, van Eyk (1992) conducted a phone-in to find out from working parents how they coped when their children were sick. The phone-in had 445 (mainly female) callers. Almost all the callers (98.7%) reported that they had taken leave in the past year to care for a sick child. About three-quarters (72.3%) had taken one week or less, 15.1% had taken two weeks leave and 12.6 per cent had taken more than two weeks time off. The phone-in revealed that mothers were predominately responsible for the care of children when they were sick and that this unequal burden of care could limit the career choices and opportunities for women.

The most common method of taking time off work to care for a sick child was for workers to use their own sick leave; 43.5 per cent of callers said they had done this. However, when they had used sick leave, over half (53.8%) the callers said they had not told their employers that they were using it to care for a sick child. Instead, they said that they needed the sick leave because they were unwell.

VandenHeuvel's (1993) results corroborate those of van Eyk (1992). Telephone interviews were conducted with 2 642 employees in Australia. Of the respondents, 1500 had dependent children; many reported they needed to take time off to care for their sick children. When parents were asked if they had needed to send a sick child to school or a child care centre in the previous 12 months, one in seven (15%) said they had. …

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