Blog: Thank You For Giving Me Back My Life!
Overdramatic as they seem at first these eight short words, spontaneously whispered in my manager’s ear as I left my internship, in reality completely sum up what the past five months has meant for me.
Seven years ago I became seriously ill, unable to function, in widespread pain and diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. I had to give up work, well most of my life really. I remember very little about this time but, with care and rest, I have been lucky enough to recover to work part-time.
However finding suitable and sustainable work has been unbelievably difficult. I have been careful with my working hours but have still regularly had zero work-life balance, living instead a work-sleep balance. I had to leave jobs to rest for months to recover again. I was referred to a disability employment advisor, she told me “you’re not disabled, just recovering from illness”. Those words have stayed with me in the intervening years, meaning I was never sure of myself in terms of what adjustment requests I was entitled to in the workplace, so I was pushed into work, or work patterns, that were making me ill again. I was told by managers that working certain days or times would be seen as favouritism or unfair on other staff; I’ve had the equality act quoted at me and told it means everyone is treated equally; I’ve had discussions about my illness that turned into humiliating and bullying experiences.
This cycle of underemployment, unsuitable employment, unemployment or illness meant that by late 2018 I was out of work to recover again and truly felt there was no place for me in the world, that I had nothing to give or contribute. I was in the darkest place I have ever been in and my self-confidence and self-worth were at rock bottom.
Quite by chance I saw an ad for an Inclusion Scotland’s internship, with Impact Funding Partners. I was given brilliant support and advice by Inclusion Scotland at all stages but still couldn’t quite believe it when I was offered the post. I have loved working here, despite shaking with fear and self-doubt for my first few weeks, and struggling initially with a flare-up of fatigue and nausea! My new work colleagues were brilliant to work with and really welcoming and helpful. Caring about fairness, Impact Funding Partners prides itself on being an inclusive employer, so flexible working is offered to all staff. I found it so much easier to work unusual hours, or from home, when it is the company norm. There was no problem changing work days if I needed extra rest time. I also found it really helped to take extra breaks in a dark, quiet room. This didn’t even seem like much of an adjustment to my manager Heather - as she put it “I don’t mind when you work, as long as the work gets done”. Heather also gave me amazing personal support, especially during extra supervision meetings when she often took on a mentoring role helping me recognise that I do have unique and valued skills and supporting me emotionally when I was back full of self-doubt. This safe and supportive environment gradually allowed me to trust employers again and also to begin to believe in myself again.
My actual role was working on the Scottish Government’s Workplace Equality Fund (WEF) and this has been so useful in giving me clarity on what the Equality Act 2010 actually means. I have learnt that there are two main ways equality can be achieved so everyone has a fair and equal chance; either by redesigning things so they are inherently equal from the start, or by giving protected peoples whatever additional support they need. I benefitted from both of these methods during my internship – flexible working for all staff and quiet rest breaks for me. I now know which reasonable adjustments I need and can expect from a good employer, so work can be sustainable for me without causing flare-ups in my illness.
My workload has been interesting and rewarding, enabling me to brush up on old skills, and learn new ones. I learnt about best practices in inclusive workplaces and about constructive partnership working. It is a source of great personal pride that I planned the logistics for a learning event for all WEF projects with guests from industry and Scottish Government. I even found the confidence to give a short presentation to all the delegates.
The biggest benefit of the internship for me was how all of these varied things came together to make me feel like an actual person again. Crucially I gradually discovered my strengths again, and decided upon a future career plan, one that will be sustainable for me and also enjoyable and rewarding. I gained the self-belief to secure my next post, and I am looking forward to a bright future.
If you are thinking about applying for, or hosting, an internship then I would say you must.
Quite simply it has given me back my life.
- Siobhan McGuinness