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Parents use annual leave or take unpaid leave to care for sick children

90% of British parents say they would support extending sick leave for parents when their children are sick

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Oct 6, 2021

Child in bed having temperature taken with thermometer

New figures released today reveal that parents in paid work are routinely being forced to use their annual leave or take unpaid leave when their children are sick. There is strong support for an extension of statutory sick leave to include some paid child sick leave for primary school children.

More than 1,000 parents across the UK were asked in a Mumsnet survey in partnership with Harriet Harman MP how they managed when their primary school aged children were ill before the pandemic and how they felt about a proposal to extend sick leave policies to include time off when a dependent child is ill.

In the survey, 88% of parents reported having taken time off work to care for a sick primary school aged child. Of these:

  • 39% had taken holiday/annual leave 
  • 29% had taken paid leave 
  • 29% had taken unpaid leave
  • 10% had reduced hours or dropped work
  • 7% had taken sick leave
  • 2% had left their job

Almost a third of parents (29%), and more than half of C2DE parents (52%), are taking unpaid leave to look after their children, with C2DE parents twice as likely to take unpaid leave than ABC1 parents (26%). Almost four in ten parents had taken holiday/annual leave to look after sick children. ABC1 parents were twice as likely (31%) to take paid leave to look after sick children compared to C2DE parents (15%).

“I can't afford to lose wages and I am sick of using annual leave as it means I have no break or holiday every year nor does my annual leave stretch the entire half term/summer holidays which means that my husband and I are like a tag team. I can't remember the last time all four of us (myself, husband and two kids) had days off together. It's depressing.”

“It’s realistic to expect that children will be poorly. I have sent my child in when he was ill as I couldn’t take time off work. He has probably made other children ill but I was unable to take anymore time off.”

High impact on women and self-employed

The situation is even more dire for single parents, more than 90% of whom are women. Single parents were almost 60% more likely to take unpaid leave than parents living with a partner (43% compared to 27%). 

12% of parents in the survey, most of whom were mothers, had reduced their hours, dropped work, or even left their job to deal with having sick children. 10% had reduced their hours or dropped work due to caring responsibilities related to caring for a sick child. 

“'I’m the primary carer and would take the time off anyway. I left a previous job as I wasn’t allowed time off (paid or unpaid) and had no other option.”

”I have been denied any unpaid parental leave. If it was a statutory entitlement I wouldn’t have had to leave my permanent full time job to do agency work”

Extending statutory sick leave

Unsurprisingly parents supported provision to be able to better manage their children’s sick days without losing pay or losing holiday time. 

When asked if they would support extending statutory sick pay to cover a parent when a child of primary school or nursery age is sick, 90% of parents supported the idea, with only 6% opposing it. 

“It would make a massive difference and give security to know that we can care for our children first knowing the bills are ok.”

“ Children become sick. At the end of the day someone needs to look after them. I feel this would make life easier for a lot of people as I find myself stressing about money and my sick child when I should just be worrying about my child.”

Justine Roberts, founder and CEO of Mumsnet, said: 

“Most economically developed countries have a system of paid leave to provide short-term care to a sick child at home. Parents in paid work are losing desperately needed pay and  holiday leave, and in the worst cases leaving work altogether to care for their sick children. Anecdotally we see on our forums that many parents have little choice but to send children into school sick, which obviously has repercussions for other pupils and school staff. The impact on workplaces of having parents who are stressed about arranging childcare and torn about their ill child shouldn't be underestimated. We need provisions in law that give parents a little bit of breathing space to care for their children.”

Harriet Harman, Labour MP and chair of Joint Committee on Human Rights said: “Public policy is completely out of date. Mothers are working now and not at home to look after a sick child. You can’t leave a young child on their own when they’re sick.  But there’s no right to take time off, let alone sick pay.  Of course this hits hardest at those on lower paid jobs. The forthcoming Employment Bill is our chance to insist that we put this right.”

Caroline Nokes, Conservative MP and chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, said: "We all knew pre pandemic the greater share of childcare responsibilities was on women, but the results of this survey are really stark. Women are carrying the economy by having to take so much leave, much of it unpaid, when children are sick or off school for other reasons. There are good fiscal reasons to support women forced to take time off in this way but also good societal reasons. It’s high time we recognised and valued this sort of invisible but vital contribution."

Notes to editors

Survey of 1,124 UK Mumsnet users with at least one child in primary school, between 24 September and 29 September 2021. The data is not weighted.