The elephant in the workplace and it’s not a ‘fit note’

In this picture, I felt relieved and relaxed of the fact that I had got through the most testing and terrifying time in my entire life, with life still ahead of me and most importantly sharing it with the most important people in my world.

A few weeks before we flew off for this much-needed break post-surgery I had been given the ‘all clear’ ‘crystal clear’ by my wonderful consultant. He remains my hero for his speed to solve.

After the momentary pause away from work from the crappy day of my diagnosis, tests, more tests, surgery and recuperation from having pretty much my entire womanhood taken from me, I returned to the workplace. Isn’t hindsight such an excellent thing — What a big mistake the way I returned, turned out to be!

I hope that as you read this and should you be in a position to make some changes in your workplace that you feel compelled to do something different. From hereon in I will be candid with my personal experience of returning to the workplace as a cancer survivor.

Over the last few years, many workplaces have been more generous with maternity, paternity and long-term absence for their people which having benefitted from two of those I will be eternally grateful. Before cancer came along, I was proud of the fact that I had not had one single day off sick EVER. I just didn’t get ill that often and if I did I ‘worked from home’, of course — the modern day work around!

Along came the blessing of pregnancy and during my maternity leave, I found different ways, rewarding and joyful ways to spend my time each day with my daughter. Fast forward ten months later, returning to work after maternity leave and I was fortunate to have a network of new mums in my workplace and in my wider network to call upon for support, advice and a few guilty tears.

Then one sunny day I race off to my appointment with my daughter and husband in tow and BOOM. Enforced leave. I didn’t choose this leave. I didn’t want this absence. In fact, I remember vividly driving into my then workplace and just wanting to stay at work that day and pretend nothing had happened and get on with my job and my meetings for the rest of the day. I was lost. A complete lost soul, not knowing what to do, who to do it for and what would happen if I didn’t have much time left on this planet — What would I want to do with my time?

I went home reluctantly with my tail between my legs no longer sure of my place and purpose in this world to start to make sense of the shit storm. I use that term lightly! Kris Carr nailed it in her book ‘Crazy, Sexy Cancer Survivor’.

I’d crawl over broken glass to go back, but I know I can’t. So what should I do?

What happened over those weeks leading up to results, D-day and surgery were nothing short of amazing with complete and total support from family, friends, colleagues helping me deal with the shock. A few colleagues from work knew the real reasons I was away from work, and I did rely on that private network of individuals. I wanted it that way initially because I didn’t have the strength to deal with people’s responses following a few mixed experiences and I was still in shock myself not sure what the hell was happening. I have also been on the other side of trying to be there for someone diagnosed with cancer when my mum was diagnosed in 2001. It’s tricky to navigate because so many things don’t get communicated through fear!

I returned to work after 11 weeks and that day was probably one of my most humiliating and saddest days of my working career. It wasn’t until I parked up and walked in with my hubby, who thankfully worked there and ushered me across the large campus that I realised the overwhelming fear and shame rise. Walking into a huge open plan office, I could feel my cheeks starting to burn, and my skin starts to sweat. I wanted to hold on to my husband’s trouser leg, scream ‘please don’t leave me’ and go and hide under his desk, but that would have been a bit weird. I left him at the stairs and walked towards one of the free desks.

I sat down and kept my head down. I got out my things, and everything just felt different. Who was I kidding, I was never going to be the same person. I stared at my laptop and was hit by a comment from a colleague that had all the best intentions, but floored me with his sense of humour. I sobbed my heart out in the toilet to hide my embarrassed face. I wasn’t ready for work and work wasn’t ready for me.

My first day back was spent pretty much on my own. My team and the Management were out and busy in the throws of what it takes to work in a fast-paced organisation. My return to work was so different to my previous return to work after maternity. No immediate network in place to call upon that shared a similar experience.

As the week progressed I spent time with some brilliant and caring individuals who helped me navigate my return and the job I was returning to but really, truly and only now can I see I was numb, angry and totally pissed with my world. I had gone from my bubble at home feeling protected, looked after and safe, to walking into a hustling and bustling business with people who looked like they were working in their own crisis. I had walked from a personal crisis and pretty much stayed in that mode when I returned to work.

As the weeks and months passed, I continually tried to shoe-horn my energy into my role, yet continued to burn out. It felt, and this is my truth, which may differ from THE truth that I was avoided by some, perplexed by others and an anomaly that just didn’t make sense (I even recall someone saying to me I just don’t know anyone that has lived after cancer!). I was sensitive to how it felt to be back at work, and I sensed unease, discomfort and more. I was all over the place mentally and emotionally although tried telling myself and others I was fine! I was naive, not strong or bold enough to say what needed to be said. ’Survival mode’ in a person and workplace can create unprecedented actions in people!

Over the last few years, I have tried to make sense and consider what could be done differently. Here is my personal view of what needs to be said and shared for future survivors from all walks of illness and absence when they return to work because for some walking back into the workplace is like stepping into the arena finding your place in your new reality:

  • Talk to the person and ask how you can ensure their return to work is supported from the minute they arrive, until the minute they go home on that first day.
  • The person returning isn’t always the best place to give you advice on how to deal with their return due to the shock, or conscious or unconscious change they are inherently experiencing. Get Occupational Health involved from the outset to ensure a smooth transition and return to work plan is devised alongside their GP/Consultant. If you don’t have an Occupational Health Team, either speak to your Private Health providers to get direction or use the guidance from their GP.
  • Ask the person what has worked for them previously when they have had time away from work (holidays, paternity, maternity — often they will have some previous habits that can assist) and what would help them feel supported. This helps bring logic to the forefront of creating a plan and exploring what could work.
  • Encourage complete openness and communication from the outset and discuss the elephant in the room. I spent some time with an amazing leader last week who supported a colleague returning to work following cancer and treatment. They had a session with the whole team to discuss what happened, how the person was feeling and how they team felt welcoming them back etc.. I know different ways will work for different people, but by ignoring the elephant it will NOT make it go away. You will all feel so much better after it, and if you work in a big department it ends up being chinese whispers, and often the person returning to work has a different outlook on life and something urgent for example, may no longer be urgent in their eyes!
  • Build a network in your business of survivors, patients and people impacted by illness and disease. It took me a while to find them, but when I had the opportunity to sit and talk with people that had been off with cancer, heart attacks, depression, bereavement we found an understanding that was hard to get with others that hadn’t experienced life after…..
  • Introduce Keeping in Touch days (KIT) for people on long term sickness, train managers how to communicate in what can feel like uncomfortable territory and keep that practice up when they return for the first few months. Four in five (87%) line managers are not given any training on how to support people with long term conditions including cancer[1], according to new research by Macmillan Cancer Support[2].
  • Read up on ‘Return to Work’ information for the particular illness/disease the person has. The NHS, charities such as Macmillian, Mind, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research etc…
  • Be aware of the laws protecting you and the workplace from the Equality Act 2010 to Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (UK).

I would love to hear from any organisation that has practices in place to support people returning to work from long-term absence, or organisations that provide line manager support. Feel free to get in touch via [email protected].

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References from
1 Line managers surveyed were asked whether they had been given any training in how to support employees with long term conditions including cancer.
2 All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1010 line managers. Fieldwork was undertaken between 5/25/2016–6/11/2016. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of line managers in the UK.

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