My last couple of posts have created a lot of discussion, particularly around the inequalities of cancer support. But today I would also like to add another area where there are real inequalities and that is the workplace! Personally I really understand the importance of work to us all, and it is possibly the thing that I miss most since my diagnosis. Like most things in life, you rarely appreciate what you have at the time. I was always overtaken with work and longed for the day I had time to myself. How ironic though. Then I had health and no time, now I have time and no health! I guess it goes to show that in life we rarely have everything at the time we need it.
I have to admit to feeling bitter about my early career demise, and having my choices of when to retire, taken from me, (whilst still being grateful for my life!) Not just financially, which was a massive blow, but mentally too. Being self employed was always a slightly risky strategy, but long term was the only answer for someone with such maverick tendencies. Those of you that know me will know that I am not really a corporate kind of guy. So immediately I was diagnosed with cancer, my ability to work lessened quickly, and very soon the money tap turned off. No sick pay, no golden pension scheme, just crumbs from the benefits table. I used to spend more on dinner, than I was being given to last a week!
My original estimate for a return to work, was a year. I couldn’t even comprehend that amount of time, but there was no choice. I would just have to try and pick up where I left off somehow. But here we are 7 years on and still having treatment! There was a time a few years ago, that I thought I might be able to do a part time role. So I started applying for some very basic jobs. My work had gone from travelling round the world helping multi million pound businesses, to looking for local office jobs. But now I had two things against me. The gap on my CV due to poor health and the fact that I was closer to sixty than fifty. I didn’t even get an interview! I did have an interview at a job agency once, and it was explained that I had to tick the box about disability, as I had cancer. This apparently was to stop discrimination. I felt immediately discriminated against!
Yesterday, I had a private conversation with the chairman of a major UK employer, about the difficulty people with cancer face, trying to either get a job, or stay in one. He said he would employ me tomorrow, but I explained my CV would never get through the recruitment system, to even get to interview stage. I explained that in my experience, at least sixty per cent of people I know, fail to return to the same job they had before their cancer. Mostly this situation was instigated by the employer, but also some by the patients themselves.
We all understand now that cancer is life changing, and some people decide that work wasn’t the priority they once thought it was. That is fair enough, but there is a whole discussion around the benefits of work for us. Not only does it provide the income that we all need, but it gives us a major sense of purpose, and in many cases wellbeing. If we do well at work, we earn more money, and gain in confidence, which in theory should also benefit those around us. However, the reverse is also true, and can send people into a very difficult downward spiral.
The inability to work was one of the main reasons why I lost my confidence and self belief. In the working world I had a place, and respect. I was always in demand, and earned a good living. I could provide for my family, and fulfil what I saw as the ‘male role.’ The longer things continued without work, the worse I felt, and when it became quickly obvious that society wasn’t interested in accepting me back for paid work that feeling got worse. How could I be washed up at fifty one?
The commercial world is a very harsh one. Not only is it very difficult if your health starts to struggle, but also as you get older. We talk that employers should be more sympathetic to people affected by cancer, but there is also an issue with our colleagues. Of course everyone has sympathy, but quickly that wears off when you need continual time off for hospital visits etc, and they have to pick up the slack.
We all know what the law says but in reality, who is going to employ someone knowing they have a chronic long term health condition? Of course they can’t tell you that is the reason you don’t get the job. As a society, we need to start looking at these issues, as more people are living WITH cancer and treatment side effects. Volunteering of course is a wonderful place to start, but cannot fill the economic void, of paid employment.
I do know people that have been able to continue where they were before diagnosis, but many decide to have an entire change of career, and do something more personally fulfilling. It is as if cancer has been a wake up call.
How have you found the work place after your diagnosis? Are you one of the fortunate ones? What do you think about cancer and the workplace? I would love to hear your views, which can help shape my work.