Having survived a near-fatal accident, HR director at B&Q, Mike Cutt, explains how it feels to be on long-term sickness leave and on the receiving end of his company’s HR policies
At every funeral I’ve attended, the minister has spent half an hour persuading everybody that death isn’t so bad after all. I’m not convinced.
On 21 September last year, I was told that my legs were broken in 11 places, my hip socket was smashed to pieces, my pelvis was broken, some muscles were paralysed, and I had a list as long as my arm of minor injuries. I was just pleased to be alive.
And now, a year later, Personnel Today has asked me for some reflections on the experience. Well, here are a few.
It amazes me how much like TV character Victor Meldrew I become when I find that some able-bodied p**** has parked in the disabled space outside the store. When every step is agony, being able to take 20 less is remarkably close to heaven.
My chief executive’s secretary spent two weeks trying to find a restaurant in West London with a disabled toilet that I could reach in a wheelchair, for a board dinner. I ended up being unceremoniously carried to the toilet by the restaurateur when his promised access turned out to have been wishful thinking.
The reason I share these experiences is that after spending eight months in a wheelchair and on crutches, I have become very sensitised to the needs of the disabled. When my colleague, the property director, proudly boasted about B&Q achieving Disability Discrimination Act compliance ahead of the deadline, I know what he’s talking about.
And let’s not even go into how the public at large patronise people in wheelchairs, talk to your ‘helper’ rather than you, stare at you limping, and so on. It would be such a delight to yell: “It’s rude to stare”. But that would merely draw more attention.
After seven years as a director in B&Q’s parent company Kingfisher, I could perhaps feel entitled to expect the business to look after me if I nearly died. But I have to admit that a few doubts crossed my mind as I lay in intensive care, expecting a recovery period of between six and 12 months.
My contract allows the employer to summarily dismiss me if I am sick for six months, but I needn’t have worried. My CEO at B&Q was very supportive, as was the parent company. They held my job open and allowed me a staged return to work. Unfortunately, I had to make three attempts at returning to work. The metal in my legs kept breaking, and every time it did, it broke my partially-healed leg again. The company provided me with a driver until I was able to drive my own car with a hand-control.
A poignant memory of this time will be a board study tour to the US, with a gruelling schedule of store visits, and my board colleagues taking it in turns to push me around in my wheelchair.
Private health insurance
You don’t realise how little is covered by private health insurance until you’re in at the deep end. In hospital, my wife slept in a Z-bed by my side for the first 10 days, when it was touch and go. But we had to pay £900 for the privilege.
My policy covers ‘remedial’ operations at only a percentage of the total cost. But when your body is completely smashed to pieces as mine was below the waist, it is unfortunately very likely that you will need multiple operations to fix and re-fix the injuries. I’ve had five now, and three were only partially covered by the insurance. For the last one, a specialist tried to perform a nerve graft to get one of my paralysed muscles working again. Unfortunately, it failed – it was worth a try. But I’ve just had the invoice rejected by my insurance company, which will only pay 50 per cent.
However, I’m still relieved to have had insurance. You often hear complaints about NHS waiting lists for chronic conditions, but that trauma care in the NHS is great. Well… yes and no.
My first operation to fix one of my broken legs, on the day of the accident, was expertly done on the NHS. However, I was then told that I would have to wait four weeks for my shattered hip socket and broken pelvis to be reconstructed. A waiting list for trauma cases? This is unheard of in any other Western country. I switched to private health cover, and had the second operation done four days later. The surgeon said that if I’d waited the four weeks, I might as well have not bothered with the operation, with the distinct possibility of amputation.
Having worked in HR for many years and initiated such benefits as private health insurance, it is quite salutary to now be using them to such effect. I can say with some confidence that my insurance probably made the difference between having a 75 per cent-functional leg, and not having one at all.
I was lucky to have a stable and high-performing team of HR professionals working with me. Our management development process at B&Q identifies ’emergency successors’, so one of my direct team stepped into the role of acting HR director with ease.
The whole team raised its game in my absence and has grown and developed from the experience. The acting HR director especially has had the development experience of a lifetime and it has both prepared him and given him the appetite for having the top job himself. In fact, he will shortly be taking up a major HR director role, unfortunately outside the Kingfisher Group.
I’m not sure that these are exactly the right words, but without mutual trust, respect and loyalty, things would not have gone so well. As I gradually recovered, both in hospital and at home, there was a growing temptation to try to reassert my involvement in the HR function and on the board. But I could resist because of the calibre of my team at B&Q, and the relationships I had with each of them.
You can’t anticipate and prepare for such an experience, but building a team that has solid relationships and trust certainly lays the right foundations.
You know occasionally you have those late night conversations about what you would do if you won the lottery? Would I give up work completely? Would I chase the perfect work-life balance?
I’ve just faced that opportunity. I am sure that some people in my situation would ‘choose’ to be unable to do their jobs, and settle for financial security. But I found myself drawn like a magnet back to my job. Just as much as I wanted to be able to throw a rugby ball around with my two sons again, I wanted to pick up the reins of HR director at B&Q.
I’ve been surprised by how much I am defined by my job. Some of this is to do with B&Q, which is a great company to work for, and I feel very at home there. But it’s also about realising that I still have a lot more to give, and I don’t think I’m finished just yet.
It sounds corny, but when you nearly die, you ponder your legacy. You need a reason to recover from severe injury, and it involves at least 50 per cent mind as well as body. I would have anticipated that my family would be reason number one, but I was interested to discover how high my work featured as well.
Quite what that means for the future, I don’t know. After 25 years of my career, I was beginning to see myself as having fulfilled my ambition. But perhaps not just yet.