During my 13 years in recruitment, I have placed a decent number of people with invisible health conditions. These range from autoimmune conditions, dyslexia, mental health problems through to people who’ve survived cancer and trauma. I am certain that I have only seen the tip of the iceberg, and that in fact many candidates have just never mentioned their invisible difference. One of the commonalities I have observed is the fear of being judged on the thing rather than on one’s personal and professional merits. I have always encouraged candidates to be open about their situation and any adaptations they need (whether that’s extra time in a case study or time off for medical appointments). It has recently occurred to me that I’m not really walking the walk on this matter given I have never been great at talking about my own experience of working with an invisible health condition. I thought it might be helpful to outline how I’ve adapted, tried to change things, and how it has shaped my career decisions with the hope of generating some conversations that allow others to feel empowered to ask for what they need.
Epilepsy is a relatively common condition and can range from being completely debilitating to being an inconvenience. I am fortunate that my epilepsy is currently well-managed with drugs, though I have had periods when it’s been more serious. I occasionally have the “grand mal” seizures most people associate with epilepsy; more commonly I have “petit mal” seizures, which include limb jerks and absences (blank stares). I would guess that fewer than 20 of my colleagues know about my condition, 12 have seen me having seizures and two of those colleagues are aware that they have seen me fitting. I’ve had seizures during client breakfasts, meetings and pitches; over the last 13 years I estimate that at least 20-30 clients have also witnessed my seizures without knowing they have.
“If it’s not on the database, it didn’t happen” is something I say frequently, as my team will attest. It is in our nature to seek evidence and given it is pretty hard to “prove” the impact of my epilepsy, I have always harboured the feeling that asking for any special treatment would be unjustified. Having been fired from my first job as a direct consequence of my epilepsy (it was a paper round, and I kept dropping the Sunday papers all over the pavement), I’ve previously felt nervous about the extent to which I should disclose the extent to which it affects me. I am terrible at asking for help because I hate looking vulnerable, another common trait I have noticed in candidates. I feel guilty that my employer has had to endure the impact of countless medication changes, one of which seriously compromised my ability to work effectively.
I made some good progress on the communicating front early in 2020 when my epilepsy had become more severe again. I talked to my boss about having some options about my career and some adaptations I could make to my workload and levels of stress. It felt like an enormous relief to hear that my firm would do “whatever it takes” to accommodate what I need. It was and at the same time was not a surprise. I’d built up a completely inaccurate picture of what my firm expected of me.
In the event, lockdown did me a massive favour; working from home for so long meant that I experienced lie-ins for the first time since I started getting up at 6am to do the paper round. It transpires that an extra 90 minutes of sleep per day is actually what I need, so all I really need to do is spend a bit more time working from home. Of course with restrictions being lifted, it’s tempting to go back to the work habits I know best and bury my head in the sand again. I hope I won’t. I’ve been trying to link up my career ambitions with what I want from my quality of life (which I think a lot of people have done during the last year).
We talk a lot about inclusion with our clients; whilst it’s hard to talk about our differences as individuals, it’s also easy to forget that so many companies have a very genuine desire to be inclusive. The changing nature of diversity makes inclusion a dynamic challenge, and I think this is something intuitively recognised by most employees. That being said, there are some practical measures employers can take to foster an environment in which employees feel able to ask for help.
- Sharing vulnerability being role modelled from the top; the CEO and leadership being willing to share failures, fears and ambitions helps develop the feeling of being in a trusted environment
- Creating networks across the organisation across levels and functions, either through work projects or social activities creates a sense of community and numerous people “having your back”;
- No firm has inclusion nailed, but most have values that theoretically would help contribute; implementing transparent measures to reward living by those values (and equally to penalise not doing so) publicly demonstrates they are not just tokenistic.
If you are feeling afraid to talk about something like this, please don’t be. The chances are that your boss or firm will want to embrace the skills and behaviours you’ve learned as a consequence. And if they don’t – you can do better.