My husband has a hidden disability. He has been living with it for the last 7 years and it’s been 5 years since he had a life-saving operation. He has had quite a journey to get him to where he is today and it is a place that is a lot more flexible, open and understanding than the one he left all those years ago.

Flexible working should be available for everyone

As a parent of four and one-year-old girls, flexible working is something I’m passionate about. As a recruiter, I get true satisfaction when I place part-time candidates, because I know how much flexible working will enhance their ability to do the best possible job for their employer.

“Overall, a flexible work environment is beneficial to both employers and employees. Employees have more freedom to work in an environment that is conducive to increasing their output and work rate, while employers can benefit from a happier and harder working workforce.”

I’m excited about the future of flexible working in the charity sector, but I still find myself despairing of the lack of progress at times. Most of my conversations centre on women (mostly mothers) who are seeking an understanding employer that will embrace the knowledge and experience they can bring to a role, rather than the hours they might clock on a timesheet.

I would love my conversations to start including more men, dads, young people, people with disabilities, nearly pensioners. But while flexible working continues not to be seen as the norm, it so often falls onto mothers to wave the flexible working flag.

“40% of women work part-time compared to only 13% of men” via Mother Pukka

My husband Dexter’s Flexible Working Journey

At the age of 19, Dexter joined the busy world of estate agency, a male-dominated industry often associated with money, sales, banter and long hours. He enjoyed the fast-paced environment and the nice commission scheme! He steadily climbed the ranks over the next 8 years.

In a highly pressurised sales industry like this, employees are often encouraged to work longer hours to ‘look’ like they are doing more and leaving early or taking leave is often seen as ‘slacking’. Part-time hours were laughed at, home-working was incomprehensible. At the age of 27, Dexter realised what an inflexible industry he had joined.

Working long hours in an office became almost impossible. Dexter became unwell, in fact, he became incredibly unwell. First, he had aches and pains in his limbs, then he developed skin lesions and started dashing to the loo every few minutes. Soon he was unable to leave our home or go to work. He was too weak to see his friends, play sport and on his worst days, he was unable to walk. After months of clinics, observations, referrals and trips to A&E, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease; an incurable inflammatory bowel disease.

Life was tough and Dexter was unrecognisable

To see someone you love so dearly deteriorate so quickly was truly the worst thing we have experienced together. It was touch and go whether we would be able to get married, something we were so looking forward to. Thankfully a course of steroids and new medication enabled us to have the day we hoped for (although Dex still hates the photos of himself, even though he looks as handsome as ever). Steroids enabled him to go to work for short periods of time, but it really highlighted how poorly set up his industry was to support flexible working.

Dexter’s working hours were 8am – 6pm, 6 days a week where he was expected to be at his office or out and about in the local community. For someone with Crohn’s disease, this is your absolute worst nightmare. Having to be out of the house early in the morning, travelling around without a loo in sight is torture.

There was no working from home option, there was no change in his set targets and no change in his working hours, so he simply struggled through. In many industries, long hours are rarely negotiable, working 6 days a week is commonplace and excuses such as ‘poor health’ are not met with understanding or creative thinking about adaptations to support employees needs.

A turning point

At the age of 29 things got so bad he was admitted to hospital and eventually had emergency surgery where he was fitted with a colostomy bag which he will have for the rest of his life. It was a dark time and it was beyond awful to see this proud, charming, quiet, funny man change so drastically in such a short space of time.

I am so thankful that the surgery worked. In fact, ‘Bilbo Baggins’ his wonderful, lifesaving colostomy bag was the best decision. Dexter still has his issues and relies on daily drugs and monthly infusions, but the bag brought my husband back. He started to be able to leave the house, see his friends and he now has the energy to play with our two children. I will always be thankful for the life-changing surgery that he had.

Having a hidden disability is something that many people face and is something that Dexter still struggles with mentally to this day but I am so incredibly proud of the way he has battled through. He is an inspiration. However, having a disability from an employees perspective is not easy and he found that without the right support, it was impossible to stay in the same job, which he had enjoyed for so long.

A lack of flexible working options means losing the ability to attract and retain the best people

Dexter’s employer tried to understand and offered support as much as they could but they still expected Dexter to work 8am-6pm every day. There were no changes to his hours, no changes to his targets and he found his mornings were still filled with anxiety and worry. They had a sales meeting at 8.30am every morning, Dexter was expected to give presentations and as the most experienced member of the team, he continued to do all the external appointments. The stress and the worry that Dexter faced was horrendous and he eventually had to resign.

For the employer, this meant losing one of their top salespeople. Someone who was at the top of the leader board every single month before he went on sick leave. Dexter didn’t have the confidence, the knowledge or the strength to push back, ask for more flexibility and offer solutions as to how they could have helped make his daily life better. He had never seen anyone else in the industry work flexibly before and the only option available to him was to quit.

There is so much more that they could have done.

Flexible working options that could have been considered:

  • staggered start times
  • swapping responsibilities with other staff
  • some home-working
  • job sharing

Mornings were the hardest for Dexter so maybe they could have offered a staggered start time, asked another member of the team to do the morning appointments, had the option of some home working. Sadly at the time, an alternative way of working was just not considered and he had no choice but to leave and set up his own estate agency from home.

Another way…

Dexter has created a new type of estate agency which has been met with such positive reviews. He has scrapped the idea of an office, which he thinks is unnecessary, expensive and outdated and has instead focused on developing his social media presence, ensuring he is one of the most followed, liked and recommended estate agencies in Surrey. Working from home has enabled him to be more agile, chatting to his clients at all times of the day, nipping out to show an interested buyer a property at the very last minute and providing a much more personalised service.

He is also close to a loo, can choose his working hours, can go to the hospital when he needs to and can help with the school run! He can give the girls a kiss, look at what they made at nursery that day and then go negotiate a deal on behalf of his vendors. He determines his own time.

His physical and mental health has improved, he gets to watch his children grow and he feels the benefits of a truly agile working environment. He can also be a real person; a warm, chatty, personable person to his clients, someone who really knows his stuff but someone who his clients can relate to.

I wonder how many people out there have a hidden disability and have been struggling every single day of their career? How many people are scared of seeking a new role as they are worried about how understanding a new employer would be? ‘How many loos do you have here’ is not something that you really want to ask at interview but it might be an incredibly important question to ask.

Don’t we all need to work differently?

Flexibility is not just for mothers. It is for everyone. We all have lives, we all have needs, some more complex than others. When we look for a new job, we should be working in partnership with a potential employer, seeking a way to make life less stressful whilst ensuring the needs of the role are met.

This year has been one of the toughest yet but I am thankful for one thing that it has brought us and that is more flexibility. It has opened up the possibilites of flexible working for most sectors and long may it continue.

Dexter’s last employer lost out on a talented, committed and ambitious member of staff who never wanted to leave. Thankfully it has all worked out for the best.

What could you be doing differently to retain key people, ensuring you are providing a workplace which is inclusive for all?

2020 has made us all think differently and I hope that I will recruit in a more creative and imaginative way in the future. Until then, I am just thankful that Dexter is home, he is happy and his health continues to improve. Our daughters Lily and Betsy are pretty chuffed he is around too.