Catherine Brooks is a partner at law firm Moores, a co-founder of an online beauty business, and lives with MS. Catherine is accredited by the Law Institute of Victoria as a workplace relations specialist.
Career Success with MS
By Catherine Brooks
When I experienced my first MS attack I was 23. I was super fit, spending a lot of time at the gym and going on hour-long beach walks every night. On one such walk, I noticed that I had pins and needles in my feet. That night, the sensation moved up my legs and by the next morning I was feeling very strange. I went off to the local GP who said I’d probably pinched a nerve during a weight session and told me to take vitamins. But the next day I couldn’t feel anything from the waist down, and I had severe spasticity in my legs, so my GP rushed me into the St Vincent’s hospital neurology clinic where I was promptly admitted to emergency for further testing (such as MRI scans and a lumber puncture – ouch!).
I was told that I most likely had MS but that they wouldn’t diagnose me until I had more than one attack. NB: I was later diagnosed with MS and now have about 4-6 attacks per year, which mainly affect my walking.
At this point in my life I was completing a law/arts degree and working part-time for an IT company. Luckily for me, the owners of the IT business were incredibly supportive of me and I felt no pressure to return to work before I was ready. I duly took some sick leave and concentrated on resting up on the couch.
After a few weeks though, I still wasn’t walking properly but I was getting cabin fever stuck in my apartment. I contacted work and asked them if there was any way that I could do some database entry, or something that would assist but wouldn’t require too much brain power (as my head was still in a bit of a fog!). Again, work was amazing – they delivered a laptop to my apartment and assigned me with email access and a number of excel spreadsheet jobs that needed regular attention. I got paid on an hourly basis depending on how many hours I could handle and worked towards some pretty generous deadlines.
The importance of having this interaction with other people, even though just virtual initially, cannot be underestimated. Studies show that the quicker you are able to return to work after illness, the less likely you are to suffer from depression and a range of other health conditions. To be able to wake up each morning, turn my laptop on (after only a brief shuffle to the couch) and still feel a part of the business and work that I loved meant so much. I felt a part of a community of people that cared about me and crucially, I felt that I could still contribute something to the business, no matter how small, as I worked towards recovery.
This initial positive experience in dealing with an MS attack and my career taught me some key lessons that has helped me get through the past 9 years:
- Always remain engaged with your workplace, even if you can’t physically be in the office or be fulfilling your key role / duties.
- It’s important to feel a part of a community – reach out to support groups, whether in the workplace or online. There are lots of people in similar situations so none of us need to feel alone. Have you checked out the hashtag #spoonie on Instagram?
- Communicate as clearly as you can with your bosses and let them know your limitations and abilities (both physical and mental) so that they can work with you to ensure that you still have a wonderful career while juggling health issues.
- Make it clear – to yourself and your workplace – that MS attacks come and go, but that your career is key to your financial independence and professional fulfillment. Time will pass, you will work out how to juggle both MS and your career, so it’s vital that you focus on balancing your health and work (just like everyone!) in equal measures.
If your experience in the workplace has been a less positive one and you’ve found yourself unemployed due to extended sick leave etc, here are my top tips to get you through to your next job / role:
- Unexpected changes in your employment situation can be frightening. Take proactive steps and utilise the Government’s free counseling service to talk through your experience – now is the time to prioritise your mental health and wellbeing.
- Stay connected – online and offline. Keep an eye on LinkedIn, Seek and other work related channels, newsletters etc. to see what’s available for when you are ready to start the job search again.
- Reach out to your colleagues and mentors to maintain a link with those within the sector in which you work. This enables you to keep your skills and contacts current while you plan your next step.
- Touch base with recruiters and online careers counsellors, as they will do a lot of the legwork for you if fatigue is impeding your progress.
- Stay positive – this time will pass and you’ll be ready to go again in no time.
- Remember your worth and value. You are more than MS, you are more than your last job, your future is bright.