My seven-year-old dog recently developed a potentially life-threatening illness that presented itself with coughing, regurgitation and the risk of aspiration pneumonia. This went on through the day and night and she and I both became exhausted.
After two weeks, she was diagnosed with mega oesophagus. While I now had something to hang my hat on, it felt like bereavement. All the things I wanted to do I realised I now couldn’t. How would I be able to go on holiday? Who could I leave her with?
With a number of other pressing work and personal demands on me at the time, this was the cherry on the cake. My fatigue weakened my ability to cope with even the simplest of extra demands, and I was daunted by the prospect of another 10 years spent living like this.
She has now been diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis medication is helping, but there is no cure. She is now awake just once or twice in the night and after eating she has to be held upright to allow the food to drop into her stomach, but best of all, I am learning to cope with her illness. I am not wound up anymore or as tired as I was.
You are probably wondering what on earth this has to do with occupational health. But having experienced this situation, I now have complete empathy for staff who are suddenly presented with unforseen circumstances.
Situations like this can be made more difficult when the event comes on top of an already busy work and personal load which, as I found, can be enough for even the most robust to feel the strain.
I was fortunate in that I have a good working relationship with my manager, who provided me with support and short-term flexibility within my working week to accommodate the needs of the dog and myself, thus preventing me from taking any sick leave or annual leave.
This reminded me of a case many years ago when I was working for a power generation company where an employee’s wife had terminal cancer. Although the senior manager and the employee didn’t see eye to eye, there was mutual respect. Therefore the employee was given complete flexibility as to his start and end times at work.
As a result of the compassionate way in which the employee was managed, he came into work most days, even for short periods, and his work obligations were met. This was an example of a well-managed situation resulting in a win-win for all parties.
I have called this situation – where for a short period of time, employers give staff some slack in their work routine to accommodate difficult, unplanned events which have suddenly arisen – ‘crisis flexibility’.
In practice, flexibility in times of personal need is not always an option for many employees, who may work in environments where industrial relations with employers are not good. In other areas of work, the job may make it difficult for managers to see their way to implementing flexible working, even for a short period of time.
From my experience in OH, this is often down to a lack of reciprocated mutual respect between employers and staff, and the negative culture of the organisation.
Dame Carol Black’s review of the heath of Britain’s working-age population¹ makes reference to the important role the workplace can play in promoting the health and wellbeing of the workforce, and acknowledged the need for organisations to change their perception of what this means in reality.
As OH professionals, we know it’s not just about offering lifestyle checks, counselling, access to gyms and bicycle racks, as some employers would have us believe. It’s more about the creation of an environment where there is mutual regard between the employee and employer where organisations really value the contribution made by all their employees, from the shop floor cleaner, to the most senior manager and where staff recognise and are made to feel that they to have an important part to play in the success of the organisation that they work for.
I believe the way forward in embracing the government’s Work Health and Wellbeing Strategy, is for organisations to develop a true partnership approach, where employers, staff, unions, HR and OH all work together to develop supportive approaches, and where managers are provided with pertinent training to help them manage their staff in a truly holistic way.
Training managers to case manage is seen as controversial², but who else should know their employees better than them? From my personal experience, it is the managers who are the key players to employee health and wellbeing. If ‘crisis flexibility’ was ever required within your workplace, ask yourself the question: how supportive would your organisation be?
1. Black, C. (2008) Review of the Health of Britain’s Working Age Population – Working for a healthier tomorrow, London. TSO
2. Silcox S, (2004) Attendance management: more than a question of ill health, Occupational Health Review 111, Sep/Oct 2004