How to make a Plan B when you're too ill to work - Sarah Coles

I spent last weekend destroying an old shed, and in return, it spent the weekend destroying my back.

I’ve spent most of the time since resting up, full of painkillers and regret. My husband has spent it getting increasingly overworked and bad-tempered. It has been a useful insight into just how much unpaid work goes on in our home, how stressful life is when I’m not able to do my share, and just how incredibly difficult it would be if this was a long-term situation.

Most of us have considered protection for our families. In terms of priorities, it tends to come second – immediately after paying down really expensive debts and just before building emergency savings. However, we tend to focus on replacing as much of our income as possible, and we completely overlook unpaid work.

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There’s an awful lot of this work that has to be done. A study in the BMJ found that globally women do about three quarters of it - which equates to 11 billion hours a day. So we need to consider how this would be covered if we were too ill to work.

Everyone needs to consider how the unpaid house and family work they do would be covered if they were too ill to work. Picture: Andrey Popov - stock.adobe.comEveryone needs to consider how the unpaid house and family work they do would be covered if they were too ill to work. Picture: Andrey Popov -
Everyone needs to consider how the unpaid house and family work they do would be covered if they were too ill to work. Picture: Andrey Popov -

The most salient lesson for me was that an awful lot would just need to be taken on by someone else.

While my husband hasn’t loved adding my chores to his, it hasn’t been beyond the pale. Likewise, it turns out my teenagers can iron their own school shirts, cook simple dinners and take the dog for a walk.

It’s something I’ll bear in mind before I ever find myself ironing at midnight again. But by the same token, there are some things that just need more support – and someone working full time can’t necessarily do all the school runs for young kids or take care of a child under three on their own. This is the kind of thing we need a plan B for.

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If you’re employed full-time, the good news is that you’re likely to have a fair amount of cover in place already through work. If you had an accident or illness that meant you were unable to work, you may have sick pay for the early days and weeks of an illness or injury.

You may also have some income protection which will pay an income if you are too sick to work over the longer term.

Some will also offer critical illness cover, which pays a lump sum if you have one of a specific list of illnesses or injuries.

It’s worth checking the small print of all these things, so you know the circumstances when they would pay out, how much of your income they would cover, and for how long.

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Then you need to consider whether this money would be enough, not just to replace enough of your income to cover essential costs, but also to enable someone else to pick up those responsibilities your family can’t handle without help.

If you work part-time, the balance shifts against you even further, because you earn less, so would get less financial support, and you’re likely to carry a bigger share of responsibilities at home, which would need to be covered.

And if you are taking time away from the workplace for caring responsibilities, you have the worst of all worlds – with no support and the lion’s share of the unpaid work.

You might get some benefits to help close the gap. If you can’t work – or can only do a few hours a day – and have been paying National Insurance in recent years, you may be entitled to Employment and Support Allowance.

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You can also claim for Universal Credit if you qualify – either instead of this or alongside it.

Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever had to rely on state help in these circumstances knows, it can still be incredibly difficult to make ends meet, so it’s worth exploring getting cover of your own.

This isn’t cheap, but don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. If you can’t afford income protection paying a large chunk of your salary, don’t give up on cover altogether. Can you afford it covering less of your salary, or can you stretch to critical illness cover?

Both are infinitely better than nothing. Insurers will often provide cover for stay-at home parents too, although they tend to have a maximum income cap.

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Of course, this could be so much worse, in so may ways, and the past few days has given me time to consider how my family would cope financially if the worst was to happen.

Fortunately, I’ve had this thought plenty of times, not least when the children’s father died without life insurance, so I already have enough cover not just to pay off any debts, but also to ensure my husband could either pay for support with the children, or wouldn’t have to work while the children were at home.

If you tend towards a more optimistic view of life, it’s worth doing the maths.

What life cover do you have at work? Most employers will offer cover of several times your salary. What cover do you have for your mortgage and other debts? And how much more would you need to order to give you the flexibility you would need to care for your family – or to pay for the care they need?

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Of course, with the benefit of hindsight it’s also worth asking yourself whether the money you save by doing dangerous jobs yourself could ever be worth the agony and inconvenience that follows – but everyone makes mistakes sometimes.

Shopping for savings

High street banks are cashing in on our fear of faff. Half of us keep our savings with the same bank where we hold our current account, and almost half don’t bother looking anywhere else. It’s not out of any great attachment to the bank in question, or a need to save in a branch: we just can’t be bothered with the hassle we suspect would be involved in doing anything else.

Only a fifth of people (19 per cent) said rates were their top priority when looking for a savings account.

The most important thing for people when they choose a home for their savings account is that it’s easy to access their money (26 per cent) and easy to open (23 per cent).

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We’re paying a price for sticking with the high street giants, and we’re basing our choice on misconceptions. It’s no longer safe to assume your current account provider is more convenient to open or withdraw cash from than anywhere else.

Online savings banks make it easy to move money in and out in a matter of seconds.