When you are forced to change because of a serious health issue & don’t know where to start

When you are forced to change because of a serious health issue & don’t know where to start

Change is often an unexpected but constant presence when you experience the onset of a serious health issue. There is a lot you need to change, but also a lot you don’t know. So making that change can feel very difficult. Sometimes impossible given it’s hard to know what you need let alone where to find that information and support.

It’s understandable. You won a ticket in a health lottery you didn’t even know you were playing. If you had known that lottery was out there, you wouldn’t have chosen to play it. So the question is…

 

Where do you start?

 

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Whenever I have to make a change, whether it happened to me (enforced change) or one that I chose, I find this quote by MLK a form of support. Change can be destabilising because it introduces so many unknowns, and we humans often don’t like uncertainty. It can be scary. But taking that first step into the new world with all its uncertainty is key. You don’t have to know the final destination when you take that first step, i.e. see the whole staircase. Seeing that whole staircase rarely happens. We end up building the staircase as we go.

Another reason it can be hard to take that first step is it is acknowledging that the change has happened and the outcomes may have resulted in a lot of loss, i.e. of what your body used to be able to do, job, relationships, sense of independence and being in control, confidence, etc.

 

Making the change easier

return to wellness

I set up Return to Wellness to make taking that first step or first roll easier and to help you build your own staircase to where it is you want to go. (If you feel using a path metaphor is better for you, particularly if your mobility has changed, then use that. I appreciate the staircase theme might not resonate for everyone.)

This came from my own and a loved one’s experience of serious illness, plus witnessing many others with the same or similar condition as me struggling to find adequate support to make sense of everything.

I support you, whether you have the health issue or are in the caring role*, to:

  • Deal effectively with the emotional impact
  • Navigate the many changes
  • Create a ‘new normality’
  • Reclaim meaning and purpose in your life

I empower you to return to wellness, and stay there. Hence the name, Return to Wellness. It is definitely a return to something we once had and knew. A return to having hope and dreams for the future, restored confidence, having purpose and meaning in your life, a sense of happiness and wellbeing, work you enjoy, valued relationships, enjoyable hobbies, a return to yourself.

*Our carers need just as much support too. They are often the hidden heroes.

 

Why make this change?

 

Because you are important. Because your life matters. Because we have this one life for all we know. And it is precious. You know the value of life. So let’s live it, and live it as well as you can within your changed body.

 

How Return to Wellness can help

 

coping with serious illness newsletter

NEW! Return to Wellness newsletter

 

Return to Wellness can help you identify changes you need and wish to make and to navigate them whether it’s about managing the health issue’s impact and learn to accept that, finding an emotional balance, getting your needs met with doctors, returning to work or finding a new job, managing your career, reducing stress, enhancing relationships, creating a ‘new normality’, or something else.

Return to Wellness offers you this support through:

  1. 1-1 coaching where I help you figure out what is best for you to do. Clients have found this very empowering because they learn they do have their own answers of what will work for them and this restores a sense of control. I help you find those answers.

 

  1. Offering you the opportunity to take part in research about acceptance in the context of health issues. And by taking part in the research, you get a free 1-1 coaching session in exchange. It’s a great way to get a taster of this kind of support.

 

  1. I have also just started a newsletter which will give you first-in-the-queue access to these kind of articles, practical strategies and advice to manage your health and wellness, updates, offers and freebies. You can sign up here. You will receive the newsletter every 2 weeks. I don’t forward or sell your email to third parties.

 

  1. There’s a free Wellness Assessment coming soon which you can do on your own to identify your levels of wellness in various aspects of your life. If you sign up to the newsletter, you will find out when it’s available.

 

  1. I am developing an online workshop (not sure what to call it yet) to help you return to wellness in various aspects of your life. This will become available in 2018. But if you want to help shape what that programme could look like, how you want it to help you, get in touch here and we can have a chat about it. And if you sign up to the newsletter, you will also get updates on it there.

 

Make the change – Take that first step/roll

 

Support is available to help you take that first step or first roll in making the change you want. And you don’t have to do it by yourself. Return to Wellness can help and partner you on that journey.

Here is an important reminder when making change. It’s important to do it in stages. At each stage, you get used to where you are, you become comfortable with it, it starts to feel natural, and then move to the next stage. This helps make everything that much more doable because you are not trying to do everything all at once. This approach also makes it much more likely you will make your change happen. And that first step, it’s such an important step to take.

 

Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step. Martin Luther King

Taking that first step/ roll in faith is the best thing you can do for yourself.

 

What’s it like for you?

 

What is the scariest thing you find about change? Or do you find it an opportunity? In the past when you have made a change, what enabled you to take the first step/roll?

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 take that first step in making change, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

 

Pass it forward

 

Although this blog is written 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 spread the ideas, share 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, 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

 

How to create dependency on the NHS – Don’t give patients information

How to create dependency on the NHS – Don’t give patients information

Dependency on the NHS can (unintentionally) be fostered at the start of the patient journey. How? you may ask.

  • By providing little information about a patient’s diagnosis and prognosis to them at the point of diagnosis and only providing it verbally. And communicating that diagnosis via an unscheduled phone call or letter.
  • By providing little information about possible treatment plans, and the pros and cons of them.
  • Not signposting patients to relevant information, charities and organisations which can provide the information and support they may need going forwards.
  • Writing letters summarising what was discussed at appointments and treatment plans in medical speak, a language the patient does not understand.

 

In my work with the Transverse Myelitis Society, I hear the above happening a lot. I have experienced it as a patient (got the name of my diagnosis in a letter; the name of the diagnosis opens a door to getting more info).

People are left to learn what it is they do not know during a stressful time. The not knowing and associated uncertainty can increase already high anxiety levels. It can feel like a battle trying to get info, and then determine if the info is relevant to you.

information reduces anxiety

When information would help you understand and reduce anxiety.

 

I’ve seen this foster a sense of abandonment among patients. They feel so let down by their healthcare providers. It can also foster distrust. If a patient feels they cannot trust their consultant, GP, or other healthcare professional to tell them what they need to know, then is this patient going to follow their recommendations?

A patient can end up becoming reliant on the NHS professionals to do things for them. That reliance breeds expectation that that will happen. That expectation can then be passed on to others (parent to child, friend to friend, etc.).

When the expectation cannot be met due to lack of money, resources, competence, services not being joined up, whatever, then you have patients potentially upset with their treatment and care and potentially less likely to follow their medication regime, exercise recommendations, etc. Their health issues may worsen as a result. They return to the NHS for treatment. The cycle continues.

 

Lack of information is an issue for neurology patients

 

Lack of information has been identified as an issue in the Neurological Alliance’s Patient Experience Survey Falling Short: How has neurology patient experience changed since 2014?

  • 41% believed that communication of their diagnosis should have been done more appropriately or was not at all appropriate.
  • 45% were unsatisfied with information they have received about their condition
  • 46% were dissatisfied with information they have received about their care and treatment options
  • 53% were dissatisfied with signposting they had received from healthcare professionals to sources of voluntary sector support. A lack of information, particularly at the time of diagnosis, was a common theme in the survey.

I am sure many other health conditions are similarly affected. Not providing information to empower the patient is still happening at a time when the NHS can least afford it, and there are calls for patient-centred care and empowering the patient to be a true partner in their treatment and care.

 

Information is power

 

We say that information is power. And it sure is when you are diagnosed with a serious illness, chronic illness, or have a serious injury. When you get ill or have a bad accident, it often happens unexpectedly. It is not something you search for; you don’t want to get ill or badly hurt. So there is a very strong element of you don’t know what you don’t know.

If the people in the know don’t give you the information you need to know, it is that much more difficult for you to ask questions let alone the ‘right’ questions, advocate for your needs, be a part of decisions regarding your treatment and care, and find non-medical sources of support and information. You are not empowered.

information is power

It’s hard to know what to do when there is a lack of information.

 

Empowering the patient requires action by the NHS, charities and the patient

 

NHS

Please write letters summarising discussions had during appointments in plain English. A neurologist I once met said such a letter is meant to be the ‘care plan’ when he was asked why care planning was so poor in neurology (85% of respondents to the Neurological Alliance’s Patient Experience Survey said they have not received a care plan). A care plan is of no use to me as the patient if I cannot understand it.

If the doctor’s letters are meant to be the ‘care plan’, then they can’t be one dimensional, i.e. only about the medical side of things. People are not one dimensional and so our care cannot be either.

Make it easy for healthcare professionals to provide patients with information of national and local organisations which can support their needs. Develop a national database of such organisations available to all NHS trusts. Set it up so healthcare professionals can add information about local organisations.

Until such a database is developed, make it routine in your ward/practice and during appointments to ask what other non-medical support patients require and signpost them to appropriate NHS and non-NHS services and organisations.

Explain to the patient how your local NHS trust/hospital/GP surgery works in relation to their needs. When you enter an NHS system as a patient, you don’t know the in’s and out’s of how it works. Here’s a recent personal example. A doctor initiated on the same day two appointments (in different clinics) for me even though one of them has to follow the other. The reason? The second appointment is in a clinic that has longer wait times than the first appointment. By the time the date for the second appointment comes through, it should occur not long after I have had the first appointment. This was a consultant using his knowledge of how the system works for my benefit. (His care was compassionate and patient-centred! Yay @UCLH!)

In my experience with a serious illness hospital in 2008, the neurologist looking after my care knew their stuff. They were good. And nice. But they didn’t tell me much about the illness and what to expect in recovery. I had to figure out the majority on my own. So this is a gentle reminder to give your patients information verbally and in writing.

 

Charities

Produce information that your members or beneficiaries would find useful. Ask them what information they need. In fact, they may want to help you produce it. Have relevant healthcare professionals review it for accuracy. Schedule a date for when you will review the information in the future to ensure it is still up to date and accurate. The Information Standard guidelines can help you produce good quality information.

Develop relationships with healthcare professionals and hospitals as they are the conduit to getting your information to the person who needs it. This takes time. However, it can go a long way towards helping someone newly diagnosed get the support they need sooner rather than later. And as a charity, this is often a key reason why you exist.

 

Patients

Google is a great gateway to information about your condition from expert sources and your peers. Keep in mind that what may seem like an ‘expert source’ may not actually be one. If you are not sure, make a note of the information you came across and its source and ask a suitably qualified professional at your next appointment or the charity who supports people with your condition.

Your peers can be a great resource for information. However, please do not make changes to your medical routine without speaking to your doctor first. Your peers may be experts in their condition as it relates to them, but they are not experts in how the condition affects you. And sometimes, the information they provide can be incorrect so they also cannot be the only source of information.

If you can, take your partner, another family member or friend to your appointments. They can be your second pair of ears and take notes for you. Thus freeing you up to ask questions and listen. Also, your family member or friend may remind you to ask the doctor about certain things you haven’t yet asked.

Prepare for your appointments. Keep a note of questions you and your family has about how your condition impacts you. Keep a diary of how you are affected. This helps the healthcare professional to help you. That is key. In the world of managing our health, the doctor-patient relationship is a two-way street. As much as we need them to give us information, we need to give them information too. Rather than have dependency on the NHS, it’s about sharing the dependency on the NHS, charities and patients.

empowered patient patient-centred care

Two way street = Patient helping the doctor to help them and the doctor helping the patient.

 

What’s it like for you?

 

What has your experience been like learning about your health issue and how to manage it? What support did you get from healthcare professionals and charities?

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 this blog is written 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

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)

Helping your employee return to work after a serious health issue – What not to do (Part 2)

Helping your employee return to work after a serious health issue – What not to do (Part 2)

This is the second post in a series for line managers who have an employee returning to work after a serious health issue, and are wondering how they can best support them. Rather than focus on HR policies and employment law, I share 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, and can enhance employee engagement and loyalty. You can read the first post here.

 A member of your team has been on long-term sick leave due to a serious health issue and wants to return to work. You want that too but based on discussions with them, HR and/or occupational health, you have concerns, feel it might be too early and are wondering what to do. Should the employee return now or wait a bit?

There are no straight forward easy answers here as every person, line manager employee relationship, organisation, illness and its recovery process are different. My aim is to explain what not to do in this situation, the reasons people often want to return to work (sometimes early), and what you can do.

 

return to work after illness

The desire to return to work. B Babcock 2017.

 

Don’t assume you can sort an employee’s return to work by yourself

 

This is not a situation you may often deal with at work so make sure you get support. You’re learning too. Not speaking to your HR team and any occupational health services you have access to could result in you saying and doing the wrong thing from a legal perspective.

WHAT TO DO: Speak to your HR team, occupational health, and where appropriate other managers who have been through a similar situation. Read information by charities and the NHS about the illness your employee has. I’ve heard many people express appreciation for a line manager’s willingness to learn about their health issue in order to help them have a good return to work.

 

Don’t assume they would rather be off sick but are returning to work only for the money

 

I’ve heard line managers say, ‘Yeah, they’re only returning to work because the money the company pays over and above statutory sick pay is going to finish. They always return then.’

Whether or not the employee feels ready to return to work, money could very well be the reason they do so. The employee may be the sole or primary bread winner, may not have much savings, and needs the money to pay their rent or mortgage or support their family.

Your employee may have critical illness cover, but their illness/condition/injury may not be covered. If it is, it doesn’t guarantee your employee will receive a pay out. And if they can, it can take some time, at least 6 months.

Finances can be a major concern for people who are experiencing a serious health issue. And this is on top of dealing with the illness, recovery, and learning to live in a changed body.

WHAT TO DO: If your organisation offers its employees access to a confidential financial advice service, consider mentioning that it’s offered by the company to all employees. The Citizens Advice Bureau can also provide advice or the charity of the illness/condition your employee has (if such a charity exists).

 

Don’t dismiss your employee’s optimism regarding their return to work if you think they aren’t ready

 

Many times, your employee is keen to return to work, despite the questions and fears they may have. Work gives us a routine in our lives, and as routine implies predictability, this lends us a sense of safety and normality. After a serious illness/injury, returning to a sense of normality is what people want.

Returning to work can also be a sign to the individual that they are indeed getting better.

Work also provides us with an opportunity to contribute, help others, and achieve, all which contribute to our wellbeing. Those opportunities are also great ingredients to grow our confidence and self-worth, which often take a beating during a period of serious ill health when people cannot do very much physically and/or mentally and have to depend on others.

So that keenness could be your employee’s desire to feel like they are getting better, to return to a normality, and restore their confidence.

WHAT TO DO:

  • Use opened ended questions to explore what your employee is looking forward to when they return to work, their concerns and the support they need and want from you – What are you looking forward to? What are your concerns? What support would you like from me? Find out if they want their colleagues to know what they have been through and how that information will be shared. Not everyone will want their colleagues to know though.
  • Keeping in touch with the employee whilst they are on sick leave can help the employee still feel connected to work, and help you and they gauge when the return to work can start. But some employees may not be up for having regular contact. They may not feel well enough or just want to be by themselves or with family during this time. If you don’t have much contact with your employee, remember that it doesn’t mean they are not keen to return to work.

 

Don’t assume your employee’s recovery will be just like your family member, relative, or friend who had the same illness/condition

 

It won’t. See next point.

 

Don’t assume that once your employee has returned to work all is back to normal regarding their health

 

I referred to this idea in the first post on this topic where I cautioned against assuming that recovery means ‘cure’.

Regardless whether your employee returns to work too early or not, something can happen resulting in them having to return to sick leave or slow down their phased return.

When you get a life-changing serious illness, you don’t know what you don’t know so you can’t predict how smooth or not your recovery will be. A medical prognosis is the hoped-for outcome and you can do all you can to maximise it, but neither are guarantees.

There are many sources you can learn from about an illness and dealing with it, but illnesses affect each person differently, so every person’s recovery path will be different. The recovery process is one where you learn as you go.

Therefore, your employee can’t make predictions about their recovery and how they will cope with working, so they may not always be 100% sure when is the ‘right’ time to return to work. Balancing the pros and cons for all parties involved, there may never be the ‘best’ time either.

WHAT TO DO: Ask yourselves when is it a ‘good enough’ time for the employee to return. Offer confidential 1-1 support via a third party such as a coach or your Employee Assistance Programme to help your employee create coping strategies for now and into the future.

 

Don’t rush to the assumption that your employee can no longer do their job

 

Your employee may return to work earlier than they feel ready to because they are worried about losing their job. They may fear that people will think they can’t do the job anymore and find a replacement.

WHAT TO DO:

  • Keep in mind that a change in physical or mental functioning may not necessarily mean a person can no longer do their job. A temporary or permanent change to how your employee does their job or even the job they do may be required. External confidential 1-1 support as mentioned above can also help the employee figure out what adjustments they may require and even alternative jobs they can do.
  • Plan with the employee and be prepared to change that plan. Meet regularly. The plan may not turn out to be a smooth upward trend of your employee going from zero to hero according to timing guidelines given in HR policies.

 

return to work after illness

From zero to hero. The hope when returning to work after long-term sick leave. B Babcock 2017

 

Ongoing communication and trust between all parties is critical to the employee’s successful return to work

 

Here are two things you can do to help that.

  1. Check your assumptions. When preparing for meetings and during them, ask yourself, ‘What is what I am thinking, aiming to achieve, saying to people assuming of the employee? What does it assume of this process we are working through? What am I assuming of myself?’ This self-observation can help you catch assumptions which may not help you and your employee achieve your common goal of their successful return to work.
  1. Be prepared to listen to understand first before making yourself understood. If you experience inner head chatter when listening to others, bring your attention back to what the person is saying. This saying can be a great reminder to do that: You’ve got two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion.

 

how to improve listening skills

Seek to understand before making yourself understood. B Babcock 2017.

 

What’s it like for you?

 

If you have any best practice or what not to do when helping an employee transition back into work after a serious health issue, share them here. Just remember confidentiality and ensure examples cannot identify companies or individuals.

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 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 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

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