Wednesday 4 May 2011

Is the workplace fit for me?

Never mind me, I want to talk about Dave, my ever faithful, wonderful, loving hubby.

He has a "bad back."

Actually he has two herniated vertebrae and a coccyx injury from a motorbike injury years ago. He has lost most of the feeling in his right hand and suffers daily pain.

Nonetheless, one sickie in a household is quite enough, so he does what all good DWP ministers expect and gets on with it. He refuses to have surgery in case it goes wrong and leaves us even more vulnerable than we are now.

He has a job. It's not his dream job, but he goes in every day, knowing that without it, we would lose a little of the wretched dignity we have left.

He used to have a good job. He ran a call centre of 100 people, managing a budget of over £1,000,000 but he needed a job where he could leave at 5 and have weekends off, so he took a job with less responsibility and (of course) less money.

That one act ruined his career. Take a step backwards? But why? Need time off at short notice to look after a wife? But why? He has worked in his new, less responsible job for 4 years now and despite applying for countless others that he's ridiculously over-qualified for, he never gets them.

A few years ago, his back "went". Now and then, if he moves the wrong way or lifts something he shouldn't, he falls to the floor in terrible agony and spends the next week or two crawling to the toilet and living on codeine.

After two weeks he went back to work (grey and with a walking stick) and all was well for a while. A few months later he got a mystery virus. (As we all do at some time or another.) His temperature raged over 40 degrees for over 5 days, he tossed deliriously in bed, soaking the sheets and forgetting my name.

When he returned to work over three weeks later it was to face a stage D disciplinary procedure. One more day off in 6 months and he would lose his job.

He dragged himself into work come hell or high water for those 6 months, living in fear that he wouldn't be able to carry on supporting us if he didn't.

Not long after the 6 months elapsed, I got terribly sick and needed to be admitted to Addenbrookes yet again for surgery. My Mum and Mother-in-law rushed into sacrifice mode and organised childcare rotas and meal shifts, but Dave's boss was totally unsympathetic.

The only person who could take our son to school was Dave, but school starts at 9 and Dave had to be at work for the same time. He asked his boss if he could be half an hour late into work on the days when our mothers couldn't manage.

He was allowed one week. Then nothing.

All the while, I was in a hospital bed, alone, 140 miles away, with a feeding tube in my main artery trying not to starve to death. Dave's boss put him under daily pressure to confirm when my operation would be, or stated that he would refuse Dave compassionate leave to be there with me.

The company has a clear provision for compassionate leave. It is unpaid, but clearly defined and not in the power of a junior manager to deny. One day he asked Dave why they were keeping me in hospital for so long.

"What's the worst that could happen after all?" he asked.

In shock, Dave replied "She could die!" but the boss insisted that my surgeon drop everything (as surgeons are so eager to do!) to make me a priority and confirm the date.

After three or four months of intolerable stress Dave had a full on breakdown. A rocking-in-the-corner-unable-to-function breakdown. He was signed of work with severe depression, exhaustion and stress, costing the company thousands for want of a half hour here and there to get the kids to school and a little compassion.

He works for a multinational energy company with armies of HR managers and Occupational Health workers. They claim to adhere to the Disability Discrimination Act, but their own sickness disciplinary procedures call that into question.

What on earth would they make of me??

How would they "adapt the workplace" to someone who has a hospital appointment at least once a month? Someone who takes strong painkillers that mean she can't drive?  Someone who simply may not be able to get into work for a particular time in the mornings or who might collapse with exhaustion before the day is out?

How would they feel about me spending 2 or 3 hours of each day I do get there on the toilet? Or about me crying too often with pain? How much sick time would I be allowed? A few days a month? Because realistically that is the minimum I would need. Would they mind the next time I need surgery? Would they pay me for the month I spend in hospital and the six weeks afterwards recovering?

It's ludicrous just reading it isn't it?

Critics reading are 100% right to say that none of that means I cannot in some way be financially productive, But unless we start to reassess the role of employers in a fundamental way and give them the support and incentives they would need to incorporate me into their business model, welfare reform is all stick and no carrot. It can never, never work.

That's why I fight welfare reform so fiercely - not the concept, but the reality.

Throwing nearly 2 million people onto a job market already flooded with healthy applicants, without radically reforming the way you regulate and inspire that market is pie-in-the-sky nonsense. We are looking at over 5 million unemployed and great suffering.

I have some great solutions. Broken of Britain are working on theirs too. Soon we hope to put together some ideas on real welfare reform that are innovative, positive and compassionate. We also strongly believe that they could generate billions in growth.

The irony of this farce is that sick and disabled people would be the first to say that welfare does need reform - drastically. It is punitive, degrading, limiting and shaming.

But business needs reforming too, or at least the way government interacts with business to harness our great talents.

We are worth billions to the economy, the government are certainly right about that. So ask us how we can share that talent, how we can make it work for us.

The answers might just solve all of your problems at once.


  1. Its quite a sad story Sue, but one that is happening all over. Employers do not see the other side and are only interested in seeing their employee at work. And to add insult they then put them through procedure which adds to the stress. I am sick to the stomache of hearing employee friedly cause it does not exist only in writing. My former employers did not have a clue when it came to looking after employees with long term health conditions and i believe the only thing they were interested in was when and how can we offload this employee. Its just the same with two tick employers you will be seen if you meet criteria but how many have actually taken on disabled people.

  2. What a disgusting employer. Your husband could take them to the employment tribunal and probably also sue them for causing his breakdown but this requires not only money but mental and physical energy. Employers should be made to account for these kinds of actions. I had similar issues with my former employer when I was pregnant but at least I was healthy and could stand up for myself.

    Lizzy Bee

  3. Well said, I too was a callcentre manager years ago when the economy was still good and it was difficult to find staff. We asked help to our local jobcentre who sent us 5 long term unemployed. Unfortunately they all had to some extent or another some form of mental distress, learning disabilities or addiction. We ended up having to call an ambulance twice and twice the police, other members of staff became distressed and it was a neverending meeting with upset people. Personally I strongly believe that everyone should be given a chance but in a profit driven workplace with tight targets and deadlines and where people are not trained (and don't have the time) to deal with these issues, this is not going to work. And in this case they were only given a brief chance because nobody else applied for the job. Accidentally people with mental distress in developing countries recover better because they tend to have a type of economy that means they can get involved and are not completely excluded. It is our system that is wrong, inhumane and it is not the fault of the sick and disabled people, while it is wrong to exclude them from the rest of society, it is even worse to blame them for their own exclusion and make them pay financially.

  4. Sounds like my life. The more support my carees need and the sicker I get the less support I receive from my employers.

  5. I'm in a similar position to your better half. Despite having an alphabet soup of pseudo-scientific 'conditions' myself (SAD,IBS,IED et al)I stay home to care full time for The Bestes But Insanest Wife In The World.

    When will THEY realize that it would cost them far far more to keep the wife locked up in a secure asylum?

  6. This is why i fear the WCA so much. Yes one day I might be ok to work for part of the day but what employer would allow me to be in the loo for ages so many times a day, for me to have a lie down at least twice per day. What employer would understand when suddenly i just cannot get to work for a day or maybe a week. Who would accept somebody like me? No employer would want me - I know I am a liability to their company :-(

    I just do not have the strength to fight, no spoons. I am praying that somebody stronger than i wilfight for people like me and make this govt understand - We HAD dreams and lives - We did NOT choose to throw away our lives and be disabled instead

    I pray that this govt will get some humanity and understand

  7. All true, it's terrible what employers get away with, there's no excuse in this day and age for such a lack of understanding and the law should reflect that. Before anyone is allowed to be someones boss they should have to complete a course showing they understand basic issues like these as well as health and safety laws.
    And I agree whole heartedly with what you say about putting people like us back into the work market at such a time, what chance have we got against all the healthy people who have only been out of work a couple of weeks or months? It's ridiculous. Our only chance is to find a way to become self employed so we can work from home, but with millions of people also trying to do that now it is much easier said than done. It's a frightening time for everyone, and doesn't help with my anxiety one bit.

  8. I work for a multi national & am a shop steward. I suffer from manic depression & am bit outspoken. My immediate manager who came into job from another dept hated me & tried to get rid of me through disciplinary action on several occasions re bogus complaints/her personal issues with my performance which was a lot better than lot of the staff. Anyway she went too far & I snapped & took her to a Fair Treatment Tribunal through the Trade Union & I won she was found guilty of bullying & harassment. We are both still at the company & work together it was a long hard road I was off work for nearly 4 months!
    There should be company guidelines on everything that goes on in the workplace & every employee should have access to the information. You cannot be penalised for being ill or being a carer. Just remember Karma what goes around comes around!!!

  9. Not sure if this link will work but its well worth a look

  10. The story is from my local paper the Birmingham Evening Mail

  11. Interesting story zimmie, but why is DLA once again being portrayed as an out of work benefit? It angers me that it is always confused this way. DLA is paid to those who have extra needs whether they work or not.

  12. Sue,

    You continue to excel yourself with articles like this. It is truly amazing how much employers, due to a crazy cynical system, cut their noses off to spite their face and of course cost their business and the taxpayer more money.

    We do need to have an incentive based system that is clear, simple and supportive of all concerned.

  13. In my training in various jobs in the public sector, the emphasis was directed to the abilities of people not to their disabilities. DWP should have a programme which recognizes what those abilities are and how they can be used. Surely we can now organize work so that appropriate tasks can be done from home. Would it be more appropriate to support people with disabilities with more substantial grants and assist them in network connections so that they can be distributed suppliers of home-based work - after all, businesses long ago abandoned 'vertical integration'. Why do office staff need to be in one physical place?

  14. Sue, my admiration for your husband knows no bounds but still increases with everything you tell us of him! It cannot be right that he and so many other people with caring responsibilities are punished by employers for needing simple flexibility and compassion in their working lives. But it shows just how much attitudes and working-practices need to change before more people with complex health conditions and disabilities can have any real opportunity to enter the workplace. And THAT will need real changes to the welfare system as well as to the way that government interacts with business through funding and regulation.


  15. I've only just found your blog and I agree with everything you are saying. When there is talk about getting disabled people back into work, what they are doing is ignoring the reality of that. I KNOW that no employer in their right mind would touch me with a bargepole. I would simply cost them too much money. I would be off sick too often and my mind is addled with opiates. I WOULD make mistakes or sound like a drug addled zombie on an important client call. Why would an employer want me when there are hundred of applicants who are healthy with work experience over the last ten years, for each job.

    I am so lucky that I have a partner who is well paid, and so well valued, his employers allow him the flexibility your husband didn't receive. It means they keep my partner in full mental health and working very hard in return for all they have done for him. Just a bit of flexibility goes a really long way, so why do so many employers not see it.

  16. I agree that welfare badly needs reform but any MP that votes to in effect to crucify the genuine disabled & elderly should be voted out of office at the next general election without any generous payoffs & be required to claim paltry benefits to exist & live. Let them be forced into penury after their luxurious life in westminster. I ame across one M.P who claimed £1000.00 in one month for food!. If any government could get away with it they would consign all the elderely,disabled,homeless & unemployed to be lined up round a landfill site,shot & bulldosed into oblivion.Problems solved. Enough said. The streets of Britain will soon see soup kitchens, work houses & the return to leglislated serfdom as of old.

  17. Just found this blog and have a couple of comments. First, sorry you are so unwell Sue and trust you will feel better. Sorry also for your poor husband and hope he too is feeling less stressed. I know people with Crohns, both have had it for many years. One is employed full time, but to be honest works from home. She is the main breadwinner. Her condition is such that she eats a restricted diet but she manages a good social life and seems happy enough.

    The other was gravely ill several times when she was younger, had a colonoscopy, pelvic problems and was obliged to adopt her much loved children. Throughout, her husband managed to work as an international consultant, often spending weeks abroad, leaving her to bring up their children and manage their house. She did have some help with domestic chores but managed the pretty well and also seems happy. Guess your condition must be different. Have you thought about getting a different opinion?