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When the parent-work balancing act gets queasy Add to ...

'It was hell!"

Michelle Costello may laugh when she describes the challenges of juggling a career and caring for sick preschoolers, but she's not joking.

For parents of young children who are still building up their immune systems, the mid-November advent of flu season means weeks of caring for kids with virtually non-stop runny noses, ear aches, sore throats and fevers.

The daycare where Ms. Costello took her children discouraged parents from bringing in ailing kids, to guard against their germs spreading to others. As a result, the manager with the federal government in Ottawa either had to scramble to find alternate care when her kids got sick, or stay home from work.

"At some points, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to come to work the next day or not," says Ms. Costello, who estimates she missed as many as 15 days of work per winter to take care of her daughters, now 5 and 8, when they first started daycare.

Some working parents say that juggling sick kids and a demanding job is among the most stressful career experiences.

But experts advise that some careful planning, strong communication and supportive workplace policies can remedy the situation.

REDEFINE SICK DAYS

HR experts say sick days - the number of days, usually 10, that employees are allotted to stay at home for illness without affecting compensation - don't provide enough flexibility for working parents, because you can only use them if you're the one who's sick. That puts parents in the awkward position of having to fake an illness to stay at home with sick kids.

Jen Wetherow, director of Great Place to Work Institute in Kelowna, B.C., says some employers have introduced "personal days," which can be used for a variety of reasons, including caring for sick kids.

THE FLEXIBLE OFFICE

Flexible work arrangements, such as setting up employees to work from home or allowing for flextime, is one of the most effective things employers can do to mitigate work absence or the stress related to caring for sick children, HR managers and parents say.

For example, at HR software developer D.L.G.L. Ltd. in Blainville, Que., employees are asked to work 35 to 40 hours a week.

For most jobs, those hours can be worked at any time of the day, making it easier for parents to care for their child while putting in a full day of work.

In addition, all employees are set up with laptop computers, pagers and a private network, enabling them to work at home if they need to.

D.L.G.L.'s flexible work culture, which allows people to work when they can, has helped eliminate the stress associated with caring for sick kids, employees say.

"If you need to pick up your kids from kindergarten because they are sick, or stay home the entire day, it's not a problem - you don't feel guilty," says Serge Lavazelli, a father of two and client executive at the company.

On the flip side, he says grateful parents are likely to return the favour by working extra hard in crunch times.

MAKE FRIENDS

When it comes to making care arrangements for their sick kids, parents know best.

But that doesn't mean employers can't pitch in. From Lunch and Learn sessions for mothers returning after maternity leave to orientation sessions for new parents, employers have a role to play in connecting parents with other parents who can then refer backup caregivers, or provide tips on how to balance sick kids and work, says Nora Spinks, president of human resources research and consulting firm Work-Life Harmony Enterprises in Toronto.

*****

Sickness strategySome tips for working parents dealing with a sick child:

Plan ahead

If you have a business trip or meeting that can't be missed, arrange backup child care.

Take work home

Doing work from home can reduce the impact of your absence.

Be transparent

Share your backup child care arrangements with your employer and discuss the option of working at home in advance.

Eleanor Beaton

*****

THE UPSIDE

You have to go with the flow, be creative about how you get your work done and be open with your employer - they have kids too.

Michelle Costello,

parent and federal employee

THE DOWNSIDE

If you don't feel the home stuff is taken care of, you can't be productive at work.

Liz Thompson, mother

and supply chain manager,

DuPont Canada

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