How hobbies can improve your mental health when living with serious illness or injury

How hobbies can improve your mental health when living with serious illness or injury

Living with the impact of a temporary serious illness, chronic illness, or injury can be draining in many ways and adversely impact your mental health. The routine of illness/injury can quickly take over. It feels like the illness or injury dictates your life and is in control. It feels like parts of you are slipping away and you don’t recognise yourself anymore.

This is understandable. When you are living with the impact of a serious illness/injury, it’s not like you know automatically what to do. You have to figure out new ways of taking care of yourself and what works for you. That can be time consuming. Also, life continues to happen around you and you have to deal with that. It can feel like there isn’t time left to focus on fun things like hobbies and personal interests. Life is just too busy or you’re too tired to focus on them.

But hobbies and fun activities can be the very thing that will improve your mental health and quality of life. This is super important when you are living with a potentially life-changing health issue. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.

Having been inspired by my own and a colleague’s experience, and others writing about their experience, I share the 10 ways hobbies and personal interests can help you improve your mental health, and restore some normality to your life, your quality of life, and your sense of self.

hobbies can improve mental health

 

How hobbies improve your mental health and quality of life

 

Here are 10 ways in which hobbies improve your mental health and quality of life. Hobbies can:

1. Provide an escape from symptoms

In the early days of living with Transverse Myelitis, I had bad fatigue, neuropathic pain and major sensory disturbance (pins and needles everywhere in my body). I couldn’t only sit on the sofa and watch daytime telly, which I found boring.

So I opened my laptop and despite my hands being badly affected, I started genealogical research. I was quickly absorbed and distracted from the pain and fatigue for a time. Even though I made loads of typing mistakes because I had constant pins and needles in my hands and so could not feel things properly (still do just not as bad), I was so absorbed in my work I didn’t mind. My focus was on the hobby, less so on my hands.

I once heard a story of a person with Parkinson’s whose tremors stops when she picks up a camera to take pictures. There is a respite from the Parkinson’s symptoms for a time.

A colleague with Parkinson’s told me about how when she rides her bike, she is free of symptoms. She forgets she has Parkinson’s and values this sense of freedom. The cycling is also great exercise.

2. Remind you of abilities you still have

Being able to engage in research reminded me my brain was fine even though my body wasn’t. I could still do research and use my brain in a way which I valued.

3. Process of learning and getting better provides a sense of mastery

With many hobbies you learn even if you have been indulging in the hobby for many years. I’ve been doing genealogical research for 9 years now and I am often learning something new about my family or how to conduct the research so I achieve what I am aiming to. That process of improving is very satisfying.

4. Provide achievement

Hobbies enable you to achieve something of value to you whether that is drawing or painting a picture; completing a cross-stitch, book or bike ride; gardening; writing a poem or story; creating music; going for a walk; cooking a meal; winning a game; finding that one rare stamp to add to a collection, etc.

hobbies improve mental health

Hobbies can improve your mental health and quality of life.

 

5. Provide an opportunity to socialise with people

Some hobbies naturally lend themselves to being with other people and may even need others so you can engage in the hobby. Like a team sport. Being with others doing an activity you all have an interest in fosters a sense of belonging. This is hugely important as sometimes when living with a serious illness, you can feel very isolated.

I adore kayaking because it gets me out in nature, it gets me moving, it’s a mindfulness practice for me, it’s hugely relaxing, and most of the time I kayak with other people. I find paddling very therapeutic for my body and mind. As a hobby it ticks boxes of what is important to me.

6. Provide a safe way to deal with unpleasant feelings associated with the changes in your life so they do not end up dominating your life

This is important to do. It enables you to get in touch with the experience of your illness/condition/injury so you integrate it into the story of your life without it being ignored, shut away or owning you in an unhealthy way. I wrote about how you can do this here. 

7. Provide enjoyment

I enjoy genealogical research. I love the process of discovery it provides. I enjoy sharing what I learn with my family.

8. Reduce stress and provide relaxation

When we do something we enjoy that is just for us, we often relax. The stress leaves our bodies as we focus on our hobby. So when you feel stressed, indulging in your hobby is a brilliant antidote to it as @HannahEliza1 finds with playing the piano.

9. Provide meaning

Regarding genealogical research, I feel like I am the keeper of the family stories and it’s my job to record them and pass the on so current generations can do that too. That gives meaning to me and my life. It also allows me to live my value of the importance of family.

10. Restore a sense of normality to your life

Hobbies are part and parcel of life. Most people have them. So they bring a sense of normality. Although your life may have changed substantially due to a serious illness, hobbies can still be a part of it. They may be hobbies from pre-illness/injury days or new hobbies chosen due to the changes you’ve experienced because of your illness or injury.

Hobbies can provide all of this. And do you know what all this does?

 

Hobbies feed your self-worth

 

Those 10 things hobbies do for you are good for your psychological wellbeing. They improve your quality of life. They feed your sense of self-worth.

Hobbies allow you to be you, to do something for yourself, to express all the richness that is within you, and to feed that richness so you can keep expressing it.

So claim back time for your hobbies and interests. Your mental health and self-worth are too important. They matter because you matter.

hobbies improve mental health chronic illness

The value of hobbies to your mental health when living with serious illness or injury.

 

What’s it like for you?

 

Has a hobby helped you to deal with the impact of your illness or injury? Did you pick up any new hobbies as a result? Or are you trying to adapt a hobby so you can still indulge in it or searching for a new hobby to restore a sense of normality to your life? Share below as a comment and you may end up helping someone else.

If you are living with a chronic illness or the after effects of a serious illness, or are caring for someone who is and would like support to enhance your sense of emotional wellness, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

 

Pass it forward

 

Although I write this blog in the context of living with a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think someone you know would benefit from reading this blog, or you just want to share it with the world, share it using the icons below.

If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened and whether you have to, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2017

 

Why your mental health is important when living with chronic illness #ihavementalhealth

Why your mental health is important when living with chronic illness #ihavementalhealth

When adjusting to living with a serious or chronic illness, whether this experience is more recent for you or you’ve been living with it for some time and things have changed, you can experience a period of mental upheaval.

You may experience anxiety, scared of what your future will be like, worrying about every twinge and odd feeling in your body, feeling unbalanced emotionally, and are quickly moved to tears, anger or both. The rollercoaster of emotions is never-ending. You want to feel a sense of calm and balance. You want to feel normal again but are not sure if that’s achievable or how.

Firstly, it is possible to return to a sense of wellness and normality. I have helped clients successfully do this after they experienced a serious illness or onset of a chronic illness. Just a heads up that it often looks and feels differently from what it was like before.

Secondly, feeling the way you do because of the changes in your health is actually normal. These periods of adjustment are about transitioning from one way of doing and being to another. It’s about change. And when we experience change, we can experience all sorts of unfamiliar and unpleasant emotions, particularly when the change is not expected nor welcomed.

So you are not going crazy. You are experiencing another side to your mental health. Read on to learn why looking after your mental health is as important as your physical health when living with a serious or chronic illness. But first, let’s review that definition of mental health because it can sometimes get in the way of people seeking out support.

handling emotions when living with chronic illness

The roller coaster of illness

 

Debunking the myth of mental health

 

In our society, we have come to associate the words ‘mental health’ almost exclusively with issues such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, phobias, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, bi-polar, suicide, schizophrenia, other personality disorders, etc.

It is also often assumed that help is only for these type of issues. And if you don’t have them, you don’t need help, and should not need help. But if you access help, then you must have something wrong with you, like a ‘psychological problem’ and be ‘screwed up’.

That societal definition of mental health doesn’t do much for empowering people, who are experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression (maybe for the first time), to seek help and support.

The definition also discounts the whole human experience and all the good things we experience and feel. It has resulted in lack of recognition that people with mental health issues can and do experience good feelings, good times and periods of happiness.

Just as our physical health can experience good and bad periods, so does our mental health. At times our mental health is ill, other times it is in good shape.

‘Mental health’ is a neutral term like physical health. Just as we have physical health, we have mental health.

mental health #ihavementalhealth

Mental health is a neutral term.

 

The #ihavementalhealth campaign

 

Last week the #ihavementalhealthcampaign on Twitter reminded me of this and its importance to people like you and me who live with chronic illness or the ongoing after effects of a serious illness.

Dr. Ilan Ben-Zion (@drilanbz), a clinical psychologist in the UK started this campaign last week when he was sharing his NHS stories via the @NHS Twitter account. The campaign’s aim is to show how neutral the term ‘mental health’ is and that we all have it. In turn, this can reduce the stigma mental health has developed and normalise people seeking support when they feel they are struggling.

If more people feel able to seek support when they are struggling, then this can prevent issues growing into even bigger ones.

 

Your mental health is just as important as physical health

 

parity of esteem #ihavementalhealth

A balanced focus on mental and physical health is needed.
#ihavementalhealth #weallhavementalhealth

 

When living with a chronic illness or the after effects of a serious health issue, your mental health is just as important as your physical health. The reasons for this are several.

In my own and my clients’ experiences, stress can exacerbate symptoms. Learning ways to effectively manage the impact of stress becomes very important to reduce its impact on symptoms. I’ve had clients report feeling a reduction in symptoms due to addressing issues which caused them to feel stressed and learning to manage the stress differently.

Also, stress and anxiety can become more prevalent due to the uncertainty which often accompanies a change in our health.

Having support to adjust to any unwelcome and unwanted change with your health or any other part of your life can help you to work through the stress, anxiety, depression and emotional struggles more quickly and effectively. So you can return to that sense of calm and balance you’ve been seeking, and experience quality of life and normality once again. Timely support can also prevent issues escalating, allow people to appreciate and feel their self-worth, and to continue being a part of society.

Sometimes the physical health issue can cause changes in the brain which impact emotions, cognitive abilities and executive functioning. Side-effects of medications can also cause mental health issues. This is when it is important to have a suitably qualified healthcare professional involved who can formally assess the issue and recommend strategies and treatments.

These reasons show that mental health is ever-present, there is a complex relationship between our physical and mental health, and it’s super important and ok to look after it and seek support to enable us to do that.

To show your support for these ideas, get on social media, introduce yourself and use the hashtag #ihavementalhealth.

My name is Barbara and #ihavementalhealth

In fact, #weallhavementalhealth

 

What’s it like for you?

 

When you’ve been in a difficult period, what helped you to enhance your mental health? If you reached out and asked for help, what enabled you to do that? Share below as a comment and you may end up helping someone else.

If you are living with a chronic illness or the after effects of a serious illness, or are caring for someone who is and would like support to enhance your sense of emotional wellness, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

 

Pass it forward

 

Although I write these blogs in the context of living with the impact of a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think a family member, friend or colleague would benefit from reading it, or you just want to share it with the world, share this post using the icons below.

If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened and whether you have to, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2017

Learning to trust your body after a serious illness or injury

Learning to trust your body after a serious illness or injury

Learning to trust your body after a serious illness or injury or onset of a long-term condition can take time and involve many mixed emotions. Your body has changed. Forever. You can feel it. You remember what you used to be able to do. And your body has that memory too.

You go to move in a way you want without thinking because it’s what your body does. So you think. But your body doesn’t comply. Or it does and you feel a lot of pain. You may feel betrayed by your body. You can’t trust it anymore. You may feel a sense of loss missing what you were once able to do. You may even feel anger.

I know the feeling. At times, it really sucks. I have osteoarthritis in both knees. Learning to trust my body again and what it can do now has been an ongoing journey. But I had a realisation about it whilst on holiday that has been so freeing, I want to share it with you. Keep reading to learn what it was, how it helped me and may help you.

 

Fear can get in the way of learning to trust your body

 

That was the first realisation. I had assumed my knees were no longer capable of hikes which involve a walk up a steep hill (steep to me, maybe not to others). I have missed hiking over the years. I used to do a fair amount of it when living in Central Asia where mountains were on my doorstep.

Central Asia Almaty Kazakhstan

Mountains outside Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo taken by B Babcock circa 1997.

 

This fear came about for several reasons. The long-term prognosis for my knees isn’t great based on the doctor’s verdict. I had become more tentative when I walk due to often feeling pain that can come on unexpectedly and for no obvious reason. So I take great care on uneven ground and when there is a high step. This is me being careful; I want to preserve my knees for as long as I can.

Yet I feel that carefulness morphed into a fear that wasn’t helpful. I feel at times I have chosen to let the fear hold me back, to give in and say no to activities rather than trying them to see what my body is capable of.

 

While on holiday, I had to face that fear and deal with it

 

I signed up my other half and I for a guided walk of the Mach na Bo (Plain of the Cattle) on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. The walk was deemed easy to moderate and would take 4 hours. I explained that I have osteoarthritis, checked if there would be any ascents and what they were like. I felt satisfied I would be able to do the walk and my husband and I would have a lovely time.

Just in case, I decided to bring the husband’s walking sticks.

Thank the gods I did.

It wasn’t until we had walked up the valley – an easy walk where I wasn’t using the walking sticks – that the ascent ahead of me became visible.

I expressed my concern. The guide was lovely and encouraging. My other half easily scrambled up like a mountain goat. I felt envious of his ability. But also surprised and proud knowing the health issues he has experienced. He was my example to aspire to on the walk. If he could do it, I was going to as well. (There is also a healthy sense of competition between my other half and I.)

I took out the walking sticks. I moved slowly and very very carefully. Looking over the edge, I could see that if I were to fall, it would be down a steep slope. I did not fancy that. I could feel resolve kicking in. I wanted to continue walking because it was great exercise, which I enjoy, in beautiful nature, which I also enjoy.

I got to the top. The ascent was approximately 330 meters. It may not be a lot for some people but to me it felt like a 1,000. I was elated with my accomplishment! (still am)

 

facing fear and trusting my body

Making it to the top of the hill on the Mach na Bo walk. You see that river along the valley floor? We walked along the trail next to it. Photo taken by the other half 2017.

 

Support is crucial when overcoming fear and learning to trust your body after a serious illness or injury

 

I could not have done that walk without those walking sticks. They enabled me to such a degree I could not believe! They took the pressure off my knees. I am still amazed at how much that simple piece of equipment helped me. I had no pain in my knees the next day!

The guide was incredibly supportive and helpful in such a friendly manner. He encouraged me, often happily saying, ‘Ah, don’t worry about that ascent. It’s not very long! We’ll be there just around that corner!’ Then proceeded to tell a story from Celtic mythology in relation to the area we were walking through.

My other half was patient. That 4 hour walk took us 7 hours.

 

Willingness to ask and use support is important too

 

A willingness to ask for and use support, whether it is asking someone to offer their arm or using mobility aids, can get your farther than you thought possible.

But I know you may hate asking for help or using equipment. It can feel like you are giving in to the illness or injury. You miss your independence. You may feel that everyone is looking at you as you move along with your walking frame/sticks/wheelchair. It is a common reaction to your situation and understandable.

So many clients have spoken to me about how things changed for them when they learned how and when to ask for help and use support. That willingness can be developed over time. If that is something you want to explore further, I’ve written a series of four articles about why asking for help can be so hard.

mobility aids give you support

What the support of walking sticks enabled me to do. Photo taken by B Babcock 2017.

 

Keep fear in check by minding your thought patterns

 

We get so used to thinking, ‘My body can’t do this anymore…I am afraid of…’, I think sometimes we can lull ourselves into a trap of vicious circle thinking. The focus is on what we cannot do and possibly fear to such a degree there is no room or energy left to focus on what we can do or might be able to do.

I realised after that walk I had gotten myself into that place. I just assumed I could no longer hike up a hill without even attempting to hike up a hill. That fear was having a protective function – maintain my knees for as long as possible. But I had let too much fear creep in and take hold so I was making my decisions from that place. I didn’t learn I was mistaken until I was in the situation.

To double check if you are making decisions from a place of too much unhealthy fear, listen to your inner self-talk. If hear yourself saying something like, ‘I can’t do this, can’t do that…, My body is no longer capable…, Oh, that is not possible for me!’ stop and ask yourself these questions.

 

trust your body after a serious illness or injury

Keep the fear in check to help you learn to trust your body after a serious illness or injury. Photo taken by B Babcock 2017 at Annascaul Lake looking back at the descent.

 

So Barbara, are you going to walk up Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike or Snowdon?

 

No, that would be way too much too soon. For now, I will go on these monthly walks a friend organises. I will use the walking sticks. In between those walks, I will continue to do easy walks in my local neighbourhood. A few times a year I will try a more challenging walk. Having a go, building up bit by bit, checking in with my fears, and asking for help will be my way forward in learning to trust my body.

 

What’s it like for you?

 

Have you overcome a fear as you learned to live with a changed body due to a serious illness/injury? What enabled you to do that? What worked and did not work for you as you learned to trust your body after a serious illness or injury?

If you are learning to live with the changes in your body due to a serious health issue and would like support to manage the fears and do what you want to be doing, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

 

Pass it forward

 

Although these blogs are written in the context of living with the impact of a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think a family member, friend or colleague would benefit from reading it, or you just want to share it with the world, share this post using the icons below.

If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened and whether you have to, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more.

P.S. A big shout out and thanks to Kevin O’Shea of Celtic Nature Walking Tours for his excellent guidance and support during our Mach na Bo walk!

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2017

Uncovering the unconscious biases that can hinder an employee’s return to work after a serious health issue

Uncovering the unconscious biases that can hinder an employee’s return to work after a serious health issue

This post focuses on uncovering the unconscious biases which can interfere with an employee’s return to work after a serious health issue. It s the fifth and final post in this series for line managers who have a team member returning to work after a serious health issue, and are wondering how they can best support their employee. 

Rather than focus on HR policies and employment law, what I am sharing here are the subtle and often unseen aspects which can help the employee’s return to work or derail it. Knowing about them will enhance your ability to relate empathically with your employee and support them, which is a key ingredient for a working relationship built on trust. This in turn can enhance employee engagement and loyalty. The previous posts are here, here, here and here.

As part of supporting employees returning to work after a serious health issue, one of the topics I’ve written about has been how not to say the wrong thing. I’m continuing this theme but from the perspective of how the biases and assumptions we hold around health, illness and disability can impact how we treat people.

My starting point is to look at some of these most common assumptions we hold as a society. These are the messages we are surrounded by every day, which we absorb and can sometimes impact what we believe, assume, think, feel, do and say.

The aim is to deepen our awareness so we can make mindful choices regarding what we say and do when supporting a colleague returning to work after a serious health issue. Last week I shared two prevalent biases.

  1. Having had a serious illness or acquired a disability means you can no longer work
  2. For an illness/symptom to be valid, it must be visible.

This week, I’m sharing three more and offering an exercise to uncover the unconscious biases around health, illness and disability you may hold.

 

illness biases

Illness biases in our society. Drawn by B Babcock 2017.

 

As you read each bias, consider what could be the result if someone acted on them when supporting an employee returning to work after a serious health issue.

 

Unconscious Bias 3 – When you are ill, you must look ill. You cannot look or feel well.

 

This bias relates to the invisibility bias mentioned above and says, ‘You must be sneezing, blowing your nose, have a limb in a cast, stay in bed, be in a wheelchair, whatever. You can’t laugh or smile if you are depressed. You must give me a visible sign that you are really are ill. Only then will I believe you.’

Many illnesses, symptoms, and conditions are invisible like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.), Transverse Myelitis, and Multiple Sclerosis to name a few. And these conditions can fluctuate. There may be periods when the symptoms are very bad, and then they reduce or even disappear for a time. You can have a long-term condition punctuated by periods of wellness. And when you are in a bad patch, you can still look well.

Consider what it is like for the employee who has an invisible illness or disability who sees their employees roll their eyes when they leave work early because of symptoms, or the manager who asks more questions than of others who have been off sick.

 

Unconscious Bias 4 – You look well so you must have recovered or be recovering.

 

This bias says, ‘But if you are still ill, despite looking well, you must not be working hard enough at your recovery.’ Ach, that puts a ton of responsibility on a person and assumes a level of control that may not be possible.\

At work and elsewhere, this can lead to people giving the employee the quizzical look and possibly even saying something to others that the person looks well but is ‘supposed to be sick’. It can also lead to receiving a lot of advice regarding what you can do to recover.

When it comes to our bodies, we can directly control our breath, muscles and mind. We can influence other things, for example weight and body mass index through our diet and exercise. But there’s a lot going on in our bodies that we don’t see and cannot control.

 

Unconscious Bias 5 – Mental health issues aren’t real; people who have that are ‘soft’

 

The following example in the sport of cricket reminded me of this assumption. Jonathan Trott left England’s Ashes tour in 2014 because of a stress-related illness and took a leave of absence to focus on his health. ‘Michael Vaughan asserted that “both he and the public have been been ‘conned’ by Trott…”’ (Moss, 2014).

I don’t need to explain that further. The impact of being on the receiving end of that can be crushing. Having people say this about you can come across as if you do not know your own body and so are unable to evaluate your own experience.

Stigma around mental health issues unfortunately still exists in the workplace. Although there are initiatives encouraging Human Resources professionals to share their personal stories with mental health issues, ‘less than 10% of employees feel comfortable disclosing mental health problems…yet 78% of employers believe their staff are comfortable having mental health discussions at work’ (Gyton, 2017). There is an obvious disconnect.

What is it about mental health at work that isn’t working?

 

Perhaps it comes down to what Dr. Miller, policy advisor at the CIPD, said ‘A crucial missing link is often found in the relationship between line managers and their employees.’ An important link to this is the training line managers receive to manage and support staff with mental health problems. Dr. Miller said 22% of employers are investing in such training (Gyton, 2017).

There is the saying that people leave line mangers and not jobs. That line manager and employee relationship is so important. If you are a line manager supporting an employee with mental health or another health issue, one of the things you can do is develop your awareness of the assumptions you hold around health, illness and disability so you can make mindful choices going forward. Keep reading to find out how.

stigma of mental health at work

The stigma of mental health at work. Drawn by B Babcock 2017.

 

IMPORTANT TANGENT – MIND offers a course called Mental Health First Aid, which trains you in the signs of various mental health issues and appropriate ways of dealing with them. It’s very informative and helpful and I recommend it. Click here to learn more.

 

How to ensure you don’t act on unconscious biases when supporting colleagues returning to work

 

These 6 questions will help uncover unconscious and biases you may hold around health, illness and disability. This will enable you to make mindful choices on how you support an employee returning to work after a serious health issue. You can also book a session with me and we can do this together. Sometimes having an objective person listen can give you new insights.

The questions ask you to reflect on what it is like for you when you, and those around you, are ill, disabled, and in good health. The questions are repetitive, but it is important to consider them in the different situations to uncover any unconscious biases. Take the holistic approach used here and consider what you think, feel and actually do. You don’t have to do this all in one go. It may be helpful to write your responses.

 

Uncovering the unconscious biases – The 6 questions

 

1. When you are ill and/or disabled

What is that like for you? What do you think, feel and do? Do you continue going into work, work from home, or stay in bed? Something else?

What is it like for the people around you? Your family, friends, colleagues, clients? How do they respond to you when you are ill? How do you respond in turn?

2. When you are in good health

What is that like for you? Again, what do you think, feel and do?

What is it like for the people around you? How do they treat you? How do you treat them?

3. When a family member, friend or colleague is ill and/or disabled

What is that like for you? What do you think, feel and do? Do you look after/deal with them the same way you look after yourself when you are ill? Or differently?

4. When a family member, friend, colleague, client is in good health

What is that like for you? What do you think, feel and do? How do you treat them?

5. For each of the above questions, review your responses. Ask yourself,

What must be true about me (and others) for me to think, feel and act the way I do?

What do I have to believe?

What am I assuming of myself and my capabilities? What am I assuming of others?

6. Read through your beliefs and assumptions because they point to the biases you may hold.

The biases can be helpful or unhelpful and that may depend on the situation. Consider a real life situation (your own or another person’s situation) and how the biases can lead to action on your part which is helpful or not to the situation. With these new realisations, you can choose to do something different when that is appropriate.

 

unconscious biases

Uncovering your unconscious biases? Drawn by B Babcock 2017.

 

What’s it like for you?

 

What biases around health, illness and disability have you come across at work or elsewhere? Which ones did you find unhelpful or helpful? Feel free to share here and ensure examples cannot identify companies or individuals.

If you have an employee returning to work after long-term sick leave and would like support to ensure a smooth transition, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

 

Pass it forward

 

Although these blogs are written in the context of living with the impact of a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think a colleague, friend or family member would benefit from reading it, or you just want to share it with the world, share this post using the icons below.

If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened and whether you have to, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2017

 

References

Moss, B., It takes strength to recognise your own mental ill-health, People Management, CIPD, 25-Mar-2014, Available http://www.cipd.co.uk/pm/peoplemanagement/b/weblog/archive/2014/03/25/it-takes-strength-to-recognise-your-own-mental-ill-health.aspx?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cipd&utm_campaign=pmdaily&utm_content=250314_comment_1

Gyton, G., Less than 10 per cent of employees feel comfortable disclosing mental health problems, People Management, CIPD, 20-Feb-2017, Available http://www2.cipd.co.uk/pm/peoplemanagement/b/weblog/archive/2017/02/20/less-than-10-per-cent-of-employees-feel-comfortable-disclosing-mental-health-problems.aspx

 

Unconscious biases can hinder an employee’s return to work after a serious health issue

Unconscious biases can hinder an employee’s return to work after a serious health issue

This post focuses on the unconscious biases which can interfere with an employee’s return to work after a serious health issue. This is the fourth post in a series for line managers who are supporting such employees, and are wondering how they can best do that. 

Rather than focus on HR policies and employment law, what I am sharing here are the subtle and often unseen aspects which can help the employee’s return to work or derail it. Knowing about them will enhance your ability to relate empathically with your employee and support them, which is a key ingredient for a working relationship built on trust. This in turn can enhance employee engagement and loyalty. The earlier posts are here, here and here

As part of supporting an employee returning to work after a serious health issue, one of the topics I’ve written about has been how not to say the wrong thing. I’m continuing this theme but from the perspective of how unconscious biases and assumptions we hold around health, illness and disability can impact how we treat people.

My starting point is to look at some of the most common unconscious biases we hold as a society. These messages surround us and can sometimes impact what we believe, think and say. The aim is to deepen our awareness to enable us to make mindful choices about what we say and do when supporting a colleague returning to work after a serious health issue.

This week I am sharing two prevalent biases. In two weeks, I’ll share three more and offer questions you can ask yourself to uncover the unconscious biases around health, illness and disability you may hold.

 

avoiding acting on unconscious biases

Don’t think I will put my foot in it today.

 

Unconscious Bias 1 – Having had a serious illness or acquired a disability means you can no longer work

 

Consider a man in his mid 40’s who works in a large organisation in a senior position and the organisation’s culture has a reputation for being demanding and stressful. He looks in good physical shape but unexpectedly has a serious heart attack.

Or a person has a car accident and is paralysed as a result.

A common assumption I’ve come across in this instance is the person needs to change their life completely including giving up work. This reminds me of the statistic that ‘42% of disabled people seeking work found the biggest barrier were misconceptions about what they can do’ (ACAS, 2016).

That is a key point. What do we assume of people’s abilities after they have experienced a serious health issue?

 

unconscious biases about disability in the workplace

Picture obtained from ACAS Twitter feed @acasorguk (14-Mar-2017). Myth statistics come from the report ‘Disability Discrimination: Key points for the Workplace’ published September 2016.

 

Although significant changes to one’s life may be needed, returning to work can be possible. With many health issues, people’s physical capabilities are affected temporarily (sometimes for several years) or permanently, but their cognitive capabilities are not. With other health issues, a person’s cognitive capabilities are impacted, but they can employ strategies to manage them so they can continue to work.

The return to work may take time. I’ve seen a gradual return take a year. Adaptations may be needed to physically change the workplace so it is accessible, to alter how things are done (adjusting hours, working from home, adjusting existing role, moving to a new role), or equipment may be needed to help the person do their job (e.g. voice to text software, standing desk).

There can also be assumptions related to specific illnesses, for example heart attacks which happen at an age you don’t expect it to.

  • Young people don’t get heart attacks. – They do. Strokes too. Many illnesses do not practice age discrimination.
  • The stress of the job caused the heart attack. – Not always. It might be a contributing factor, particularly if it has led to unhealthy eating and drinking habits and little or no exercise. The person’s medical history, family history, and any current medical issues which may have gone undiagnosed could also be contributing factors. But sometimes illnesses can unexpectedly happen and there is no known cause.

 

Unconscious Bias 2 – For an illness/symptom to be valid, it must be visible

 

This is a pervasive bias in our society. The impact of illnesses like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.), Transverse Myelitis, and Multiple Sclerosis for some people can be invisible. Sometimes you may hear people say, ‘Well, s/he looks well,’ in a quizzical tone of voice and look in the eye. I’ve had many people tell me the response to saying they have chronic fatigue is, ‘You never look tired,’ or ‘We are all fatigued.’

Imagine here that over and over again. You start to feel as if you have to prove that yes, you will do have a health issue. It can over time lead to a deterioration in working relationships.

As I wrote previously, one reason for unpleasant responses could be people experience anxiety (sometimes unknowingly) over not knowing how to respond. When you can see something, like a person on crutches, you have some ideas on how to respond, you open the door for them.

When you cannot see something, you can feel less clear on what is real or not, what is happening and what you could do in response. Many people like to know and feel certain because it gives them a sense of control, it is reassuring.

Educating colleagues so they understand the impact of the condition and that the person can look well on the outside, but inside feel very unwell, and how they can support the person and each other can help. This can enable the team to continue focusing on what they can all do and performing as a team rather than only focusing on what one person cannot do.

However, some people will not want to disclose information about their health issue and how they are affected. There can be many reasons for this, some which are a desire for privacy, to be seen as normal and just like everyone else, not wanting to respond to questions which may be felt to be too personal, not wanting to talk about it because it makes the health issue that much more real, or the person is tired of talking about it. Whatever is said, it must be agreed with the employee. And as the line manager, you can still promote the two-way street of support among all team members.

 

Team work sharing the workload

The ideal – supporting each other. Drawn by B Babcock 2017

 

This invisibility bias points to related assumptions in our society. But I will address them in two weeks. In the meantime, consider what can happen if someone acted on these assumptions when supporting an employee returning to work after a serious health issue.

 

What’s it like for you?

 

Have you seen these two unconscious biases in action in the workplace? Or others? What was the result? Feel free to share here. Just make sure examples cannot name companies or people.

If you have an employee returning to work after long-term sick leave and want some support to ensure a smooth transition, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

 

Pass it forward

 

Although I write these blogs in the context of living with the impact of a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think a colleague, friend or family member would benefit from reading it, or you just want to share it with the world, share this post using the icons below.

If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened and whether you have to, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2017

 

References

Disability discrimination: Key points for the workplace, ACAS, September 2016 (Downloaded 14 March 2017 from www.acas.org.uk)

What not to say to an employee returning to work after a serious health issue

What not to say to an employee returning to work after a serious health issue

This is the third post in a series for line managers who have a team member returning to work after a serious health issue, and are wondering how they can best support their employee. Rather than focus on HR policies and employment law, what I’ll share here are the subtle and often unseen aspects which can help the employee’s return to work or derail it. Knowing about them will enhance your ability to relate empathetically with your employee and support them, which is a key ingredient for a working relationship built on trust. This in turn can enhance employee engagement and loyalty. The previous posts are here and here

 

Saying the wrong thing is probably what line managers fear most when dealing with a colleague returning to work after a serious health issue. You don’t want to ‘put your foot in it’, upset someone who has already been through a difficult time, and embarrass yourself in the process. But you wonder, ‘What should I say?’

In this post, I’ll give you some pointers and guidelines to help you have a meaningful conversation with someone who has been through a difficult time and cut the chances of ‘putting your foot in it’.

 

conversation with ill employee

Putting your foot in it. Drawn by B Babcock 2017.

 

Stop focusing on yourself

 

When we are worrying about ‘putting our foot in it’, our attention is on ourselves.

And the nature of this attention is anxiety.

We can end up having conversations from that place. Which isn’t exactly helpful for getting a good outcome for you, your employee, the team and organisation.

Only you can change that. This is how you can get out from in front of yourself.

Trust yourself to do a ‘good enough’ job.

Prepare for conversations. What outcome would you like for the person returning to work? For you? For the team? For the organisation? What do you know already? What don’t you know? What questions do you have? Learn about your employee’s health issue. Consult your HR colleagues (please) and an Occupational Health advisor if you have access to one.

If you feel yourself worrying about what to say, switch your focus from yourself to the person in front of you and on exploring the issue at hand with them. Without wanting to sound clichéd, you are both collaborators exploring unchartered territory. It’s about finding a way forward together. So you each have something to contribute. Focus on empowering your employee to make their contribution.

 

Please don’t start sentences with ‘At least…’

 

At least you are here now. That is the most important thing.

At least your case was mild and you can walk.

At least your other half didn’t die.

 

conversation with ill employee

Stating the obvious. Drawn by B Babcock 2017.

 

Or a variation of ‘at least’, such as ‘It could have been so much worse…’

Or tell a story of someone who had been in a similar position and how the person in front of you is in a better place.

You may be saying that from a very good place. You are happy that the person’s illness was mild in the scheme of things, that they didn’t die, and you are trying to express that. You may be trying to help them put their experience into the context of a bigger picture.

‘At least’ and its variants invite a comparison, which can often minimise and discount the person’s experience and their ability to evaluate their own experience. In effect, one is saying, ‘Your experience wasn’t that bad,’ and ‘Don’t you realise how lucky you are?’

The person may have found their experience very difficult and uncertain. For all we know, it might have been the most difficult thing they have faced in their life so far. We can get an idea for what someone else is feeling if we’ve had a similar experience and/or a well-developed ability to empathise. But if the experience isn’t our own, we don’t own it, and so it is hard to truly ‘know’ another person’s experience.

When you are on the receiving end of ‘At least…’, you can feel judged and ‘less than’. You know how lucky you are. It can feel insensitive to be told something that is obvious. It can shut the conversation down. The person on the receiving end of ‘at least’ may think, ‘My line manager doesn’t get it.’ Going forward, they may operate from that basis, correctly or not.

You can see how these small things we say and how we say them can lead to disconnection. A build up of them can lead to distrust and possibly a breakdown in the relationship.

 

And watch your use of ‘…but…’

 

That’s a good idea, but I’m not sure people will be open to working like that.

The word ‘but’ also discounts and minimises what comes before it.

Use ‘and’ instead. And connects things together and gives both equal weight.

That’s a good idea and I’m not sure people will be open to working like that. How can we approach them with this idea?

Here’s another hint. When you use the word ‘and’ in this way, say it like you would any other time. I’ve heard people use ‘and’ in place of ‘but’ and give it so much stress, that ‘and’ felt like it had the same meaning as ‘but’. (Say that last sentence substituting the underlined and with but and you’ll see what I mean.)

 

Avoid ‘Don’t you think…?’ questions

 

Questions starting with, ‘Don’t you think…’ are leading questions. Say what you really mean instead.

For example, if by saying, ‘Don’t you think XYZ is possible?’ you are thinking/wondering that XYZ is a viable option, then say that. ‘I was wondering if XYZ could be an option because of ABC. What are your thoughts?’

Depending on the person you are speaking to, if they are a subordinate or someone who doesn’t willingly give their own views, you may need to give them permission to disagree with you. And if they disagree, avoid rushing in with a response that starts with ‘But…’ as that will kill what could be fruitful disagreement, the kind that leads to an even better solution.

 

Use open questions

 

Those questions starting with ‘what’ and ‘how’, they are your friend. Use them.

Questions starting with ‘why’ are ok and sometimes can invite a defensive response depending on the topic of conversation and the relationship between you and your employee. If in doubt, use ‘how come’ instead.

Questions starting with ‘where’ and ‘when’ are good for fact checking and establishing the way forward, ‘When will you be able to finish that report by?’ ‘Where can we have that meeting?’

 

Focus on yourself

 

I started this post by saying don’t focus on yourself. Now I’m telling you to focus on yourself. Might be confusing but I’ll explain.

When you are conversing with someone, it’s important to track how you are feeling in relationship to the person you are speaking with. It’s noticing when you feel in rapport with the other person, if you are feeling anxiety or confused, have questions, you are both in agreement or something else. It’s being aware of when you are helping yourself and the other person, and when you are getting in your own way.

Increased awareness of how you are in relationship with others gives you more choices, which in turn can increase your flexibility to adapt your approach. Being able to do that in the moment gives you more influence and enables you to stay in control of yourself and your role in the conversation. This is a skill that takes time to develop because you are learning to balance your attention on yourself and the other person.

You are the expert on you and it’s important to keep developing that expertise.

 

behaviour flexibility

Listening to yourself to adapt your approach. Drawn by B Babcock 2017.

 

 

What’s it like for you?

 

If you have any examples of what to say or not when helping an employee transition back into work after a serious health issue, share them here. Just remember confidentiality and make sure examples do not name companies or people.

If you have an employee returning to work after long-term sick leave and want some support to ensure a smooth enough transition, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

 

Pass it forward

 

Although I write these blogs in the context of living with the impact of a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think a colleague, friend or family member would benefit from reading it, or you just want to share it with the world, share this post using the icons below.

If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened and whether you have to, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2017