At the beginning of June I returned to work following a six-month absence to receive treatment for breast cancer. After the elation of finishing a long slog of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I was brought back down to earth with the realisation that I would now be returning to work. A place I hadn’t been for six months, where team members had changed, where there was a new CEO, a new culture and I was rocking a not exactly subtle new look (see photo).
To say I was nervous was an understatement. But I needn’t have worried; I was immediately greeted by hugs and smiles from my colleagues and I was eased back into projects gradually and at my own pace. It felt so good to be doing something that made me feel useful and to be trusted to still be able to do it by the team around me.
As the weeks have gone on, people from outside my immediate team have been stopping by my desk to say hi and it has meant a great deal that people feel comfortable speaking to me. I can imagine from their point of view it must be daunting – no one wants to be the person that makes the cancer patient cry by putting their foot in it!
And one of the senior partners in our firm, Paul Etherington, also came to see me and personally welcome me back. Having only been in a couple of meetings with him, well over eight months ago, I was extremely touched that he made the time to do that.
It may seem odd that I was touched by what should be standard behaviour on a return to work, but I assure you it is far easier to avoid a potentially awkward situation and pretend it’s not happening. Unfortunately, in my personal life some people I counted as friends chose that route, so it was a great relief to see my colleagues rise above that (don’t worry, I also had some incredible friends who supported me throughout).
The first six months of this year has shown me that a true measure of a company is how it treats its people when life throws a curveball. And Grant Thornton really did rise to the occasion. I was lucky enough to have a very supportive manager, Jodie Promod and People and Culture colleague Ravi Ruparelia, who made sure I didn’t feel any pressure to return before I was ready.
So, this seems like a good opportunity to provide some tips on what to do if you’re ever faced with a colleague returning from long-term sick leave (from my personal perspective):
1. Go over and say hi, however awkward or nervous you’re feeling, they will be feeling 100 times worse and will appreciate someone normalising the situation
2. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they are, it shows you care and avoids the elephant in the room scenario
3. Ask them if there’s anything you can help with – sick leave can last a long time and a lot can change, it can be a little bit like starting a new job so offers of help will be appreciated even if they’re not required
4. Act normal around them! There’s nothing worse than feeling like people are treading on egg shells around you.
5. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you want people to react to you in this situation?
As life begins to return to normal, I’m looking forward to catching up with my friends across the communications industry at upcoming events. Once you recognise me with my new ‘do’ please do come over and say hi, I have a pretty good sense of humour about it all and it’s very unlikely you’ll manage to offend me. Anyway, anything you say can’t be as bad as having cancer can it?!