In the end I decided those worried for me might underestimate my Machiavellian streak and that as long as I read from a carefully written speech and posted it here afterwards, it would probably do more good than harm.
So for those who are interested, a copy of the speech I gave is below. I think on balance it was valuable. There was a good mix of 3rd sector and corporate representatives though I can't share who as the meeting was held under Chatham House rules. Nonetheless I insisted on sharing my speech with you all and the Unum representatives readily agreed.
I hope you think that what I said was valuable.
"It's was a very, very, difficult decision for me to come here today. Not physically, but ethically. Rightly or wrongly, the sick and disabled people and their organisations I usually speak to, believe that the corporate world is a cruel and callous one. One concerned only with profit and tax receipts. Can we really blame them after the many mistakes of the last decade or so? There are few companies that know this better than Unum.
But we can't stay in that place of mutual mistrust and justifiable fear forever. At some point, both worlds have to be prepared to listen to each other and find a better way forward. People will only suffer until we do.
That’s why, after much deliberation, I decided to accept the invitation to come here and speak today. 2 hours ago I was in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV feed pumping calories directly to my heart. I didn’t look like this either. I've spent 8 weeks of the previous 12 in hospital, I've had major surgery to remove yet another 50cms of my bowel. I have less bowel than I need to sustain myself with food alone and I've had over 36 blockages causing obstruction and terrible symptoms.
However, in those 3 months, I’ve written 28 articles, given 4 media interviews, taken part in one radio show, advised a TV channel on an inequality programme they are making, spoken at 2 events and attended one gala dinner. I have had 3 meetings with politicians and supported countless disability campaigns through social media. All from a hospital bed.
If anything proves that we can enable people with long term illnesses to achieve fulfilling work lives, it's this. There are ways of enabling those who choose (emphasis) to continue to work to do so, no matter how limiting their conditions. I am entirely my own boss, I can choose when I can manage to work and when I can't. I can pace myself, and set my own deadlines. If I can do it, then so can an employer. I know, because I have enabled hundreds of sick and disabled people to do exactly the same. If I can urge you all to do just one thing after today, please read the comments below an article on my blog, (the Diary of a Benefit Scrounger) entitled “I am Spartacus and I….." I believe it will transform the way you see this issue.
But we are the first generation who must deal with it. Just 50 years ago, people like me would have died. But as the briefing to this event pointed out, we can now ensure that people live with serious illnesses indefinitely and up to 50% of 50 year olds will have at least one serious long term condition. However, we can’t yet always do it comfortably.
Employers must learn to address these problems much more creatively than we do at the moment. Work must be totally flexible - often flexitime, part-time or annualised hours are not enough. We must enable home working much more commonly. Those who need to work in “Slivers of time" must retain the protections and rights of employees on permanent contracts. Finally, employers must learn that retaining expertise and experience can be compatible with large chunks of sickness absence or considerable reasonable adjustments. It just doesn’t make any financial sense to lose the best employees, simply because they can no longer commit to everything they did previously.
For politicians, they must ensure that there are no penalties and only incentives to work. Universal Credit would NOT have done this adequately, despite the rhetoric. They must make schemes such as Access to Work available more freely, though sadly we have seen an erosion of A2W rather than an increase. They must allow quick, easy returns to social security support if work fails and they should consider some kind of portable lifelong fund for permanent or degenerative conditions that could iron out some of the roller coaster of sporadic ability.
(Emphasis, key point) MOST IMPORTANTLY, AND I CAN’T STRESS THIS ENOUGH, THEY MUST TOTALLY CHANGE THEIR OPINIONS AND START TO UNDERSTAND THAT PEOPLE WILL IN FACT GENERALLY STAY IN WORK LONGER THAN THEY SHOULD, RETURN TO WORK SOONER THAN THEY SHOULD AND ARE THE BEST JUDGES OF THEIR OWN IMPAIRMENTS. UNTIL THIS IS THE CASE, UNTIL WE STOP TAKING SNEERINGLY OF “ILLNESS BEHAVIOUR” AND MALINGERING NOTHING ELSE WILL MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE AT ALL.
I've learnt that the gulf between academic or political analysis of the employment market and long term illness, and lived experience are very different worlds. As a campaigner and someone living with a serious long term illness myself, I have a virtually unique perspective, as I’ve also attempted to produce academic analysis. I know myself that good intentions sometimes evaporate when crowbarred into words on a page. Conventions can dilute passion until it’s all but lost. Perhaps most of all, lengthy chapters of heart and soul can be misrepresented in a media world concerned only with soundbites.
How does it REALLY feel to be in constant pain? We might think we know, but we don’t. I have effectively had Salmonella for 31 years. But human nature doesn’t allow us to believe that could be possible. Sometimes I struggle to believe it myself. Yet I’ve lost count of the times close friends or family have told me of a recent food poisoning in sheer horror. They will say “I thought I was going to die, I was clammy and shivering, I passed out on the bathroom floor. I must have been to the toilet 15 times and I was sick until my throat bled.” And they simply can’t bring themselves to believe that I feel like that every single day. Even people who have seen me exactly as they describe countless times can’t believe that it’s really that bad all of the time. We’re programmed to forget severe pain - If we weren’t no-one would ever have a second baby!!
But the fact is that no amount of evidence or statistics or research - or even good intentions - can enable someone who has lived a pain free, healthy life to truly understand those who have not.
The single most important thing we could do is let go of our paternalistic and sometimes judgemental attitudes to ill health and embrace the vast experience and creativity of those trying to be the best they can. If an employee has decades of a previously unblemished sickness absence record, it is extremely unlikely that they became a hypochondriac overnight. If they insist they need an adjustment you believe is unnecessary, it’s vital to stop and ask ourselves if we can really understand the need.
The ONLY (emphasis) way to design and implement schemes or policies that will work for people with long term illnesses is to co-produce them, ensuring that the people who really know what is needed have an influential say in development."
Comments were invited and discussed after the speeches and I pointed out that fatigue is the most cited factor preventing people with long term illnesses from taking or continuing with work. I said that pain can sometimes be treated, symptoms sometimes controlled, but there is just no defence against the often paralysing fatigue that is present in so many long term conditions. Simply having a comfortable space or two that staff can use to rest or even sleep in for a while could help many to increase their capabilities. It would also help with the "brain-fog" that so often accompanies fatigue, allowing someone to return fresher and more productive later in the day.