Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book, “This Feed Is on Fire: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Reclaim It,” will be published by Alcove Press in 2024. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Like many parents, I can’t remember the last time my children made it through an entire week of school. With the country battling a “tripledemic” of Covid-19, RSV and the flu, my family was sick for much of the fall. The week before school closed for holiday break, one of my daughters was out for four of the five days. On the day it reopened, my kids made it to lunchtime before I got the call that one of them wasn’t feeling well.
Sound familiar? So many parents and caregivers these days are sick of our kids being sick. And what’s making things even worse is the common workplace expectation that we should simply work from home when we or our kids are ill.
Officially, as of March 2022, 86% of full-time employees in the US were offered sick leave benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But what’s happening unofficially is another story. In our new world of remote work, my mom friends keep telling me their bosses and colleagues seem to assume they will keep working from home when their kids are sick, rather than taking the time off their employers officially offer. They say that even when they let their colleagues know they are caring for a sick child, co-workers continue to call and email, asking when certain tasks will be done or if they can hop on a Zoom call.
According to an online survey conducted in November 2021 for Beamery, a workforce management company, 65% of workers in the US and UK felt more pressure to work while sick as a result of remote work.
This is awful. First, when we’re sick, depriving ourselves of rest may prolong our illness. And when young kids are sick, we can’t give them the full attention they need if we’re distracted by work.
What’s more, the “tripledemic” we’re dealing with is requiring even more of our time because of our over-stressed health system. In recent weeks, my husband and I have spent hours waiting on hold to reach the pediatrician’s office and gone on multi-pharmacy hunts for prescription medicine and children’s Tylenol. We’ve even had to enlist family members in other states to help us find children’s painkillers due to low supply.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that some of the viruses going around these days tend to cause high fevers. When my children spike a fever above 105, our pediatrician’s protocol is for us to make an appointment, but not to wait for it and instead bring them immediately to the office. When this happens, it’s not just time-consuming — it’s terrifying. You can’t simultaneously contribute to a conference call in these circumstances.
Of course, companies can’t give parents months of leave to recover from all of these viruses. (Workers typically get a week or so of leave per year.) But employers should be flexible in allowing people to use sick days partially. You might take off for a few hours to take your kid to the pediatrician, and then put in a couple hours of work while they’re napping.
What’s critical is that colleagues respect that staffers can’t keep their normal workload or hours when their kids are sick. Employers should encourage workers to unplug when they need to.
With the wave of layoffs hitting many companies, parents shouldn’t have to worry they could be jeopardizing their careers when they have to care for sick kids. Managers should make clear they allow and — this is the crucial part — encourage workers to take the time they need when they or their children are sick.
In addition to communicating such norms and policies, supervisors should model them by not working when they are sick. And they should encourage staffers to pitch in and help one another when this happens. These are the kinds of companies where most of us would probably want to work, so these policies would likely pay dividends by leaving them with happier, more loyal employees.
It’s unreasonable to expect workers to be able to keep doing their jobs normally when they or their children are sick. As so many of us battle an epic onslaught of illnesses, changing these expectations would leave our workplaces a whole lot healthier.