Gone are the days when it was taboo to talk about illnesses in work, be they mental or physical. More accepting is society these days that everyone faces emotional battles of varying degrees throughout their lives. Battles that will, as hard as people try to avoid them doing so, impact their work at certain points.
But are those days REALLY behind us?
It’s certainly more common these days that people will tell their story. Battles with stress and depression. Bereavements. Physical and mental ailments. Just plain exhaustion.
But it’s still too often the case that people hide their stories for fear of them becoming a hindrance to career progression, or a driver of reduced respect and inclusion.
As either a leader or a member of a team, look around you. Do you know everyone’s stories? Are you adapting to people around you to help get the most from them? Are you being honest with your own story to help create trust and openness?
By knowing each other’s stories we’re not saying that everyone needs to spill every minute detail, especially when they don’t want to. But the basics of understanding and empathy are only possible when people feel they can be honest about how they’re feeling.
And understanding and empathy are two of the most powerful weapons in a leader’s armoury.
A leader’s role in business is not to clear the task list and tell people what to do. A leader is there to find the best people for the job, and to motivate and enable them to do a good job.
Not hiring the best person simply because they need an added layer of empathy and support means you’re not hiring the best person. Neglecting to offer support and flexibility to your team when it’s needed means you’re not going to get the best from them, either in the short or long term.
The very people who receive that empathy and support will re-pay that debt in droves through discretionary effort and loyalty to you. And surely that is in the best interests of the business going forward?
A leader’s role is also to lead by example. To not ask others to do something that they themselves are not prepared to do. To tell their stories so as to give people the confidence to tell theirs.
So, here’s my story:
Aged 21, after years of ill health, I ended up in hospital after falling really unwell. I was diagnosed with the chronic auto-immune condition ‘Crohn’s Disease’, a debilitating condition that has no cure.
Throughout the early stages of my career in Logistics, Manufacturing and Retail, all traditionally ‘hard graft’ industries, I was battling not just my workload, but my own body too.
The toll on me during my 20s was only understood by my close family and friends. Long days at the office were followed by nights of crippling pain and exhaustion. My body’s way of getting me ready for another long day at work the following day.
I can count on one hand the number of colleagues/Managers I told about my illness during that time.
Why? Because I felt, wrongly or rightly, that owning up to my ‘weakness’ would probably negatively impact my career. And as my career was one of the main things that kept me focused and determined, I couldn’t risk that happening.
I, myself, have worked for so called ‘leaders’ who, on realising the extent of my health condition, chose the route of formal self-protectionism rather than empathy. A stance of ‘if you physically can’t be on site when we need you, you can’t do the job’ rather than ‘we can work with you and help you to perform whilst managing your health’.
During my early 30s, I achieved my objective of becoming an Executive Director. Right then, my body decided it was time to take a plank of wood and repeatedly smack me around the face with it to remind me that my illness was in charge, not me.
Accompanying the Crohn’s Disease came Rheumatoid Arthritis, Asthma, significant hearing loss and Fibromyalgia, plus a number of other complications.
Suddenly, the mere requirement to do a 40+ hour week became impossible. The task of an hours commute no-longer manageable. The ‘challenge’ of walking through the office became difficult without crutches.
I could no longer hide my story. It had to be told.
And tell it I did.
With the support of my fantastically understanding and supportive MD, and a brilliant team around me, I managed to continue to perform in work, working less hours and not being afraid to change plans when I needed to. And never believing that I wouldn’t continue to build my career and achieve more and more things as the years progressed.
And it’s that belief that, for so many people battling their own challenges, keeps them going.
Without belief we are nothing. Without belief we lose what is one of the most important battles we face in our lifetimes.
Yet that belief can be shattered by the ill-informed actions of a few in the workplace.
Still contributing. Still leading. Still doing well.
As determined and as strong minded an individual as I am, I am no longer afraid to admit that I’ve come close to just giving up on my career and succumbing to a life of ill health at home. And without the support from my colleagues, my team, my boss and my family and friends at the time, I probably would have 2 years back.
Yet here I am, getting stronger by the day, now the co-owner of a thriving business, working flexibly and yet still achieving more per hour than most do (crucially more per hour, not more hours). It can be done.
Knowing that I will never be ‘normal’, I’ve learned that my health will always be a factor. I just need to find the right balance to allow me to further my career whilst managing my illnesses properly. And I need to share my story with everyone I work with so they can be empathetic and flexible when I’m going through a rough patch. As simple an action as allowing me to move a meeting makes all the difference.
And the most refreshing thing – the majority of people I’ve explained my story to in the last year have responded with a level of maturity, support and understanding that I could’ve only dreamed of 10 years back. There are more good people out there than bad.
If you haven’t got a story, it’s either not happened yet or you’re kidding yourself.
If you think that people who are battling their own mental or physical challenges at any stage of life are best giving up on a career, and cannot possibly be as productive or effective in an organisation as those on top form, think again.
If you feel that way, you’ve probably not faced a personal challenge of your own yet. But the very fact of life means we all face a challenge at some point. Be it illness, injury, exhaustion, stress, bereavement or one of the many other personal stories people have. NO-ONE gets through life without something.
And you, one day, will need that empathy and support in the same way others around you might need it from you right now.
Empathy and support that will translate in to discretionary effort and extra loyalty back to you and your business, repaying the debt multiple times over.
If you consider your team and are not aware of their personal stories, then maybe you’re not listening properly. To hear, people need to talk. And, sometimes, talking must start with a simple question from you:
‘How are you?’.