In sickness and in health: An illness won’t ruin your career

Tom Welsh
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ANTONIO Horta-Osorio has been back as chief executive of Lloyds Bank since January. His absence began in November 2011, and was famously attributed to exhaustion caused by the pressures of his job. His is a reassuring story – a successful executive, overcome by poor health, could reveal it to colleagues and return to his previous role after recovery.

The same tale doesn’t replay everywhere. Despite high-profile campaigns by charities, illness can have damaging effects on a career – in poor acceptance by colleagues or managers, in limiting the ability to progress following recovery and, in severe cases, the loss of a cherished job.

But you can manage your career around illness, whether mental or physical. And you can assuage the inevitable concern that to admit incapacity, however treatable, is to admit defeat. Employers will often have a more positive reaction than you imagine – and not solely on the level of personal sympathy.

John Binns is a senior partner at Deloitte. In 2007, he suffered a bout of depression that left him unable to work for two months. “I assumed that my career would be over,” he says. “It’s a high-pressure world and, when I informed the firm about my depression, I thought it probably wouldn’t be possible for me to work in that environment ever again.” Deloitte felt differently. “The message was that I was valuable.” The company was unconcerned that it would take time for him to recover. It was more interested in seeing him return to his role, recovered, and to continue winning business.

Binns emphasises that it’s expensive for many firms if good people leave. Whereas you may feel that your depression, stress, or exhaustion might lead your company to cut you adrift, most managers realise that poor mental health is often temporary. And many will work to ensure that both your career, and the value they derive from your personal success, can continue.

Deloitte has since set up a network of nine partners to offer support to anyone concerned about their mental health. It’s designed to “create a wave of recognition that mental health is a big issue in the City,” according to Binns. And he hopes the innovation will catch on – he has spoken with several large City firms about similar projects. “Organisations are increasingly recognising that it’s important to get it right.”

In a 2010 YouGov survey of adults living with cancer, four in ten said they had to make changes to their working life due to their illness – and half of those changed jobs or left work entirely. Liz Egan, programme manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, says that “employers play a critical role in helping people with cancer stay in work, or return after treatment.” She agrees with Binns that “it is likely to be cheaper and easier” to help people with cancer stay in work than to recruit a replacement.

But unwell employees have a greater protection than the self-interest or goodwill of their management. The Equality Act 2010 classifies cancer and other serious illnesses as disabilities, and protects employees against discrimination in the workplace. Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to an employee’s working life. And although the precise definition of reasonable is left open to interpretation, planned adjustments could include flexible working hours or a gradual reintroduction to the workplace following extended sick leave. A serious illness needn’t mean a clear-cut break with previous career progression.

Nevertheless, a protracted career hiatus may prevent some employees from returning to their previous job. To some extent, the degree of career damage will depend on which point of your career you are at. Alex Lawrie, associate director of specialist markets at Morgan McKinley, suggests that “a six-month break from a 30 years career is likely to have a different impact than a similar period out of a five year career.”

But Lawrie advises using some of your time to take “a realistic look at your career aspirations and own abilities.” Rest and reflection may be important for recovery, but a moment of pause may also assist in reassessing your priorities. What seemed sensible in the narrow tunnel of your career ascent, may now appear futile or unnecessary.

And, in any case, a future employer will likely be unbothered if you took time off due to events out of your control. In a job interview, “it isn’t necessary to talk about past episodes of ill health that are unlikely to reoccur,” says Lawrie. Employers are more interested in your positive achievements and future promise, not any unfortunate turn that made you stumble.