‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get.’ Julie Addis-Fuller is giving her tip for working with an impairment, but she could be talking about many other aspects of her life from her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis to her role as chair of her son’s parent-teacher association. After all, asking for what you want uses less energy than the alternative. It’s all about spoons, apparently. (Yes, spoons. You’ll just have to read on to find out.)
Julie is currently chair of Workability, the disability network at professional services firm Deloitte LLP. An audit quality and risk manager, Julie and her department ensure that the firm’s audits are carried out in accord with the relevant financial regulations and to the highest quality. When she became chair of the Workability Network two years ago, the network was in transition having lost its inspirational senior champion John Binns, the former Deloitte partner who is now a mental health adviser. The network is now growing strongly and has more than 350 members.
‘Following John’s lead, the firm picked up the mental health agenda he’d highlighted and made some very positive moves forward. We’re fortunate to enjoy his continued support as a Mental Health Champion,’ says Julie. ‘But the wider disability network had lost its way a little. Keen to rejuvenate the network I got involved, knowing I had the support of the firm. I focused on building relationships with existing members and welcoming new members – going out and meeting them to explain there were, and are, people in the firm who “get it.”
‘Our network wants to support not only people affected by physical disability, mental health challenges, chronic or acute conditions, but also those who are affected through someone else like a family member or partner. The objective is to help make it possible for us all to be our authentic, whole selves at work.’
Julie describes her communication style. ’We did a personality assessment in a training session and I came out pretty much 50-50 integrator and guardian. Integrators are collaborative, team players. Guardians are risk-aware, which is good given my day job, and nurturing, perhaps because I’m a mother of two. Basically I care about people and I think an inclusive environment is hugely important, that’s why I’m involved in the disability network. I want to help.’
Julie says disabled colleagues often don’t know what support is available to them through the firm. They don’t always understand the processes they may need to go through to access that support, and they’re worried about confidentiality. She understands those barriers and wants to use the network to overcome them. There’s a great deal of support available, including through the firm’s employee assistance programme.
Julie’s rheumatoid arthritis was diagnosed just six weeks after the birth of her second child nine years ago. ‘I’ve been here 17 years. I now know how agile working works and I’ve used the employee assistance programme with confidence. But it wasn’t always like that. After I had wrist surgery I was told by my consultant to be very careful; I was told to rest a month to protect the function of my dominant hand. But on my first contact back with the firm, human resources told me to see occupational health (OH) right away. I was really concerned that OH would have all sorts of plans for me, typing one handed or something. It wasn’t like that at all. They understood and I had the month off the consultant recommended, and then a three month phased return.
‘I had the sort of fears anyone might have: concern that once you share information it may be decided you can no longer do your job. This was particularly so for me because I’d developed the condition at work. I wasn’t disabled when I joined. I now know there’s lots you can take advantage of if you put your head above parapet and say I need to make a change.’ Don’t ask, don’t get.
For Julie, disability confidence is about giving individuals confidence. ‘The idea is to foster an environment in which there’s no need to hide things, in which you’re prepared to ask for workplace adjustments.
‘Reluctance to share personal information is a major barrier to building disability confidence. Doing so is voluntary and we have had people in very difficult situations who’ve not said anything until disciplinary action was in the offing. I find this frustrating, given the excellent support and resources the firm have in place. But I understand why people might be wary of being judged as less able then colleagues and so don’t speak up. Professional services firms are high pressure work environments. Many juniors are fresh from university. When you join you might not want to rock the boat or stand out by being different. I want our members to know that we celebrate difference at Deloitte.’
There is also a particular challenge posed by client site working. ‘A lot of our people go out to our clients’ offices, some of them switching several times a month. Or you may be in a role where you’re not working with the same manager for any length of time, so you’re less likely to build up relationships in which you’re happy to share personal information.’
Julie has found a possible solution to this challenge through her PurpleSpace networking. ‘Borrowing ideas for overcoming barriers is immensely helpful,’ she says. ‘The workplace adjustment process is more challenging if you’re not always using the same desk. At a networking event, the chair of another disability network told me about its passport scheme. If you have particular adjustments, you’re given a document that sets these out. You can then just share this passport with each new manager; there’s no need to go through it with every new person and explain yourself again. Our network has shared this idea with HR and I’m hopeful we’ll introduce something similar at Deloitte.’ If you don’t ask, you don’t get - but you shouldn’t have to keep asking.
Going for a coffee and offering a listening ear has helped me to grow the network and build the committee. This week I connected two people with a similar condition to share how they dealt with it and how they discussed it with their managers. We want to introduce a buddy scheme whereby, via a profile on the firm intranet, people can be available to talk to others who are in similar situation but perhaps not so far down the road. They can point people to sources of help and support both inside and outside of the firm.’
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel as a network lead, she says. ‘Our firm’s LGBT network, Globe, have introduced an ally programme. You can join if you think the cause is important (or you want to join without disclosing) and I think we could do something like that with the Workability network.
‘Sharing stories is really powerful. We have stories from our members on our intranet explaining what, for them, needs to be done differently at work. For example, a person with a hearing impairment who can’t take a phone call, a person who stammers who doesn’t want his sentences finished for him, a person with cancer who may, like me, need to take advantage of the agile working approach…’ In Julie’s case, she works two days a week in the office, one at home and uses flexible working to avoid commuter rush hours.
‘Chairing the network has made me realise just how many issues there are out there. We surveyed our network’s membership and I was surprised how many people identified as having a chronic health condition. But perhaps that isn’t so surprising when you consider that the vast majority of people – over 80% – who are protected by disability discrimination legislation will develop their condition during their working life. There’s a lot of invisible illness out there. But, if asked, people will share their stories for the benefit of others.’ So Julie asks. Don’t ask, don’t get…
One thing we need to ask: how does Julie deal with a high-pressure job, being a mum, chairing a disability network, and managing rheumatoid arthritis? That takes a lot of energy. ‘It’s not that different a process from juggling the demands of childcare with work,’ she says. And this is where the spoons come in. Spoon theory is a way of explaining to the lay person how you manage the fluctuating energy levels you experience with a long-term health condition. Essentially: imagine your energy levels are a spoon drawer with a limited number of spoons. It takes one spoon to get up, another to get to work, four to do a day’s work. So how will you use the two spoons you’ve got left? If it takes one spoon to get home and one to put the kids to bed, there will be no spoons/energy left for a coffee with friends. Not so much time management as energy management. If you haven’t heard about spoon theory, look it up. (We’re spoonfeeding you insight here!) The link is at the end of this article.
‘A senior champion is very important and we have recruited two new partners at a senior level - we wanted two partners as it will spread the load.’ It uses fewer spoons? ‘Yes. On our committee we all share roles. I have a co-chair.
‘When I joined the firm I thought I wanted to be the youngest ever female partner. But after having my children and getting my diagnosis, I reassessed what makes me happy. The network is certainly part of what makes me happy. I like to connect with like-minded people.
‘I didn’t wish to have a disability, but it has opened up opportunities. Perhaps it is sad it took a diagnosis like this to look at my life and decide what was important. But I say my rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t limit me, it helps me focus on what matters in my life.’
Reluctance to share personal information is a huge issue, especially in those sectors where there is a particularly intense work culture.
Listening to Julie compare managing rheumatoid arthritis with managing childcare is very powerful. Over recent decades, workers at all levels, with and without kids, have come to understand (if not always fully accept) the juggling involved with work and children. The comparison will help workers at all levels, with and without impairments, understand the (spoon) juggling involved with work and disability. When you’re asking for something, asking for it using language that will be familiar to the person you’re asking can make all the difference. So don’t think of it so much as asking for a workplace adjustment, think of it as asking to borrow a spoon.
Julie is an Audit Quality and Risk Manager and chair of the Workability, disability network at Deloitte LLP.
https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/Spotlight on...is our series of deep dive conversations with an exceptional group of disability change agents. These disability network leaders, champions and allies talk to journalist Jim Pollard about their unique contributions and approaches to the narrative of building personal and business disability confidence from the inside out.