How to Work From Home When Your Kids Are Sick, According to Experts

It's the phone call that every parent dreads: a school nurse or daycare caregiver says your child is sick and needs to be picked up. At a moment's notice, you immediately stop whatever you're doing to get them. But that also means you need to adjust your entire work day. Important meetings on the calendar might need to be postponed and urgent deadlines are probably rescheduled. While this can feel overwhelming and stressful, it's helpful to know that you're not alone.

"All of us have to remember we are recalibrating after a long time not even having sick days because it was either COVID or nothing. So we're a little off our games. We're a bit out of practice, and we're going to have to work out these muscles a bit better and go easy on ourselves," says Aliza Pressman, PhD, a developmental psychologist who works with families and founder of the Raising Good Humans podcast.

For many parents, the pandemic has been an especially challenging time, not only because routines have been completely upended but also because there's no universal childcare. Many parents were working from home while managing childcare and ensuring their kids were getting schoolwork done. That increased load is part of the reason why parents reported high levels of depression, anxiety, and burnout at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a 2021 study.

Fast-forward almost three years later, not much has changed. Although some people have returned to the office while others are working from home at least one or more days a week, many are still finding it difficult to find adequate childcare and support, especially during sick days.

Since it's not always possible to clear your work calendar when your kids are sick, we asked experts to share some insights and tips to help make the mental and physical load a little lighter.

1. Give Yourself Some Grace

Balancing work and taking care of a sick child is no easy feat, so the best you can do is to give yourself some grace and figure things out as you go, says Keisha Reaves, LPC, PMH-C, maternal mental health expert and founder of Push Thru Therapy. Things might not run smoothly and there are bound to be some hiccups: your child may throw a tantrum, you may lose your patience, and making the progress you'd hoped to on your to-do list might feel like an impossible battle.

While you're already juggling several things, carving out time and space to take care of yourself and prioritize your needs can feel difficult — but it can go a long way toward helping you stay calm and composed.

That means, when you have a moment to breathe, like when your kid takes a nap or when they're in bed for the night, resist the urge to immediately dive back into your inbox. "I often like to encourage clients to check in with themselves about what they have the capacity for and what they feel their body needs," Reaves says. Be honest with yourself, and if you need a mental break to zone out to a TV show, call a friend, sit for a quick meditation, or — oh yeah — eat something, give it to yourself. You don't always have to dedicate all of your "free" time to work and in fact, making sure your baseline needs are being met will make you more effective and efficient when you do turn back to your workload.

2. Call On Family Members and Friends to Help

You aren't a bad parent if you ask for or accept help, and it can make a huge difference in managing stress and your workload at home.

Start with proactive conversations with your existing support system. If you have a partner or spouse, for instance, have conversations ahead of time about splitting childcare and carrying out household chores and other responsibilities, such as scheduling doctor's appointments and picking up medication at the pharmacy. "If your schedules can flip-flop with one another, you could get to work while they watch the kids," Reaves says.

If you have a nanny or babysitter and they're comfortable caring for your child while they're sick, do the same with them. They might be able to sit with your kids at lunch or dinner so you can carve out an hour or so for work, or pick up your other kids from school to ease the burden a little.

If you don't have that kind of support, consider phoning a trusted family member, friend, fellow parent, or neighbor who's willing to help out. "I think sometimes we do have to humble ourselves and receive help in certain seasons of our life. Having a sick child is one of those seasons to receive help," says Tiffany Conyers, LCSW, PMH-C, a perinatal mental health professional and certification trainer for Postpartum Support International.

Worth noting: "help" can look different than we might picture. Who's to say the pizza delivery guy isn't help, when he enables you to forget about food shopping and cooking for the night? As Conyers puts it, "Delegate but also outsource [help] if it's financially possible."

3. Parent Loudly With Coworkers

Be honest with your boss and coworkers about your current situation and communicate your availability and bandwidth to do work while your child is sick.

Reaves says that means saying outright, "My kid is home sick. I'll be able to complete XYZ while working from home today, and am planning to finish ABC while working after-hours." This is more effective than not communicating with anyone at work about your situation, because it offers you more flexibility and allows you to reset expectations. The fact is, your workflow is going to look different when you're taking care of your child at the same time. Better to acknowledge that, come up with a reasonable plan, and be clear about your abilities than to burn yourself out trying to juggle it all on your own.

Conyers recommends making a list of the work-related tasks that are on your plate so you can dedicate your limited time and energy toward high-priority tasks, and stress less over less-urgent items. Having a list can also help you come up with realistic adjusted timelines that you can then communicate with your team at work.

Of course, not all workplaces are understanding and flexible in these situations. If you're not sure how your manager expects you to handle situations like working from home while your kid is sick, you can ask them up front during one of your check-ins (ideally not the day your child starts running a temperature). But many people are more understanding than you'd think — and your workplace might surprise you.

"We all collectively better understand what it's like [to work from home with a sick kid], even folks who didn't historically end up staying home. So I think leaning heavily toward the shared experience we've all had and reminding yourself it's not a big ask," Dr. Pressman says. "But you do need to often make the ask. No one's offering it. Say, 'I need support. This is what I can do. This is not going to be realistic for me.'"

4. Pick Your Battles

When kids are sick, they're crankier and may be more likely to have tantrums and meltdowns. And when they're sick on one of your workdays, you might be crankier too. That can lead to butting heads. Part of getting through the day in one piece is understanding that you're going to have to make allowances, and try to bring calm into what may feel like a tense situation.

"That means we have to collect ourselves first, and that's the biggest challenge," Dr. Pressman says. The steps above — giving yourself grace, asking for support, setting clear boundaries at work — can help with this. So can reminding yourself to extend patience to your kid. Pressman suggests telling yourself: "My child's sick so they're freaking out. But they're not in danger and I'm not in danger, so I can lend them the part of me that knows that we're all safe."

That might mean giving them extra cuddles, or letting them hold onto your shirt or sit in your lap, even while you're on a Zoom call, she says: "It may be that they need a little extra love, anything that feels like it's soothing for them."

And if you snap at your kid, it doesn't mean you've failed as a parent; it means that you're overwhelmed and need to take a few minutes to regroup. "Remind yourself you're only human and this is perfectly natural," Dr. Pressman says. Then acknowledge that you made a mistake and apologize to your child, and remind them that you love them and are here to help figure things out, she suggests, adding: "Those repairs really serve as reminders that we all get to screw up sometimes and it's not the end of the world."

5. Know That This Period Is Temporary

While caring for a sick kid and balancing work is an especially stressful time that will stretch the limits of your patience and resilience, it's a brief period, and things will eventually get better.

"What helped me was remembering that this is temporary," Conyers says. "'My child is healthy more often than they are sick. This is a small time frame.' That was something I had to tell myself." She also brings in gratitude, when she's able to. "The gratitude is I get to work from home. I get to do this and not be in a car somewhere. We can manage these symptoms. We have flexibility in our schedule. And so even if that's not the case for many parents, it's just really looking at what you can be grateful for at this moment, even when it sucks," she says.

But when you can't look on the bright side, Conyers also recommends fully embracing what you're feeling and not judging it, because the fact is, parenting, whether your child is sick or not, is hard.

Ultimately, all you can do is do your best. And remember, your child will take away something from your example, too: that this is how you care for somebody when they're not well.