Negotiating with employers when you have health problems - Lisa's story

Lisa Brereton, from south London

Lisa Brereton, from south London, was diagnosed at the age of 15 with lupus, a chronic condition that can affect the skin and internal organs and carries an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

In 2011, when she was 38, she started suffering from muscle spasms and unexplained pains. Tests later showed she’d had a heart attack.

A month later, she had a second, more serious heart attack. As a result, Lisa was away from her job as an NHS Service Manager between May and September that year.

Returning to work was difficult. “Colleagues’ understanding was the problem,” she says. “I look well, so people assumed that I was well. I think employers need to know the person isn’t necessarily going to be back to normal, with the same stamina they used to have, within a few weeks.”

After some negotiation, she had a phased return to work. “I was initially asked to work 10am–4pm, five days a week,” she says. “I had to get my trade union involved and, with their help, it was agreed I could work three days a week for the first two weeks, then four days a week, and back to full time in the fifth week. After that, I was expected to be normal. But I hadn’t even finished cardiac rehab at that point – my cardiac rehab lasted 12 weeks.”

It is about telling your employer what you need

Lisa decided to switch to interim contracts within the same field, which gave her flexibility. “I told the agency I had regular clinic appointments, and that I had to go to cardiac rehab on Thursday afternoons,” she says. “Plus, if I decide to take time off because of my health, I can.”

In 2013, she had heart bypass and valve surgery. When she went back to work three months later, things were easier than before thanks to more understanding from her employer and flexible working arrangements. Still, Lisa’s work life was affected. “I forgot bits, tired quicker and walking to meetings took longer,” she says.

She’s adapted by writing down vital information, working at a steady pace, taking a break from work to eat rather than skipping meals and giving herself longer to reach destinations. She also had support from family members and from her cardiac nurse, who she says was “excellent”.

“Most people do want to work,” Lisa says. “It is about telling your employer what you need. Don’t feel guilty for asking.”

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