I’d never taken a dressing gown to work before. But my choice to return to work during the last stage of breast cancer treatment meant coming to the office in the morning, dressing gown in my handbag, before heading to the hospital at lunchtime for a daily dose of radiotherapy.
After nearly a year of cancer treatment, returning to work was supposed to be the straightforward bit. As senior director of communications at the water regulator, Ofwat, I knew my job, my colleagues and had a supportive, public sector employer. I’d been warned of fatigue and had a phased return to work plan from occupational health. I assumed that in time everything would return to normal. I was wrong.
My work identity had vanished; I still felt like a patient
I’d grown used to a life structured around medical appointments. In contrast, my return to work felt unpredictable. I didn’t know what support I needed, or what I would find difficult. I lasted three weeks before going back on sick leave, unable to cope.
Together, Ofwat and I had to find a solution. We set up a formal system of communication which continued as I came back to work part-time. In regular weekly calls with Ofwat’s head of HR and chief executive we talked about every aspect of my return – from the side effects of my medication to restructuring my team to help manage my workload.
I attended Breast Cancer Care’s Moving Forward course, and realised that I felt most at home with other cancer survivors. My work identity had vanished; I still felt like a patient. I’d finished my treatment, but cancer still dominated who I was.
I struggled with anxiety and every decision at work left me tossing and turning into the small hours. Having spent a year unable to watch anything more taxing than The Great British Bake Off, I found the emotional demands of managing staff impossible.
Managing fatigue restricted my ability to travel between Ofwat’s London and Birmingham offices, while evening events – a staple of any senior communications role – were also off the agenda.
I didn’t look like everyone else. My office wardrobe, unworn for nearly a year, felt uncomfortable and ill-fitting. Ongoing problems with my hands and feet meant that I struggled with buttons on blouses and wearing formal work shoes.
Having a visible role as one of Ofwat’s senior leaders meant my illness, and recovery, felt very public. Coming back to work without any hair was a difficult, yet memorable, moment. Unable to face walking into Ofwat’s open plan office alone, I asked a colleague to meet me outside. The office fell silent as we walked in. Ofwat’s chairman saw me through the open door of his office and came out, clapping his hand on my shoulder. You’re welcome, it’s good to see you, he said, in a voice loud enough for the whole office to hear. That affirmation boosted my confidence, helping me feel part of the team again.
A year on and now back at work four days a week, I still meet regularly with Ofwat’s chief executive and Head of HR to review working arrangements. What we’ve learned has led to a new way for Ofwat to manage long term sickness absence, based around open, straightforward and ongoing communication. It’s been a positive outcome from an illness too often shrouded in silence.
- Claire Forbes is senior director of corporate communications at Ofwat
This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public. If you would like to write an article for the series, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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