At the start of 2017 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and basically that was it for the year: treatment hijacked my life. I was forced to take substantial time off work, and probably would have been forced to stop work entirely had it not been for an extremely supportive employer allowing me to have reduced duties. Instead of my usual management responsibilities I worked on a couple of projects that didn’t have firm deadlines or require me to be face-to-face everyday, and I was excused from any duties involving crowds.
That is without a doubt a major factor in how well I coped with my treatment. I had zero stress about money: I was able to use my leave entitlement to work part-time as my health permitted, and some major stressors were removed from my working life. I was able to more fully relax during treatment than I have in years.
There was a point when I was dreading taking back my full responsibilities. I have the great privilege to do work I care about, persuading people to pursue higher learning, with a group of hard-working and committed professionals who genuinely want to help people. But it’s a high stress environment: we deal with constant change and high uncertainty and the work is complex and highly bureaucratic. A lot of people are suffering a lot of stress, and people get sick from it. It struck me one day during chemo—when I was literally being poisoned—that I had felt worse when I was supposedly ‘well’. I realised the toll stress had been taking on my body, and my mental health.
I still have a lot of treatment to go, and although I am doing really well, I don’t have much stamina. Stress is exhausting, and damaging. I see calm, and rest, as a necessary part of healing. How could I return to working the way I was before and expect to get well?
My employer* is progressive on a whole lot of staff wellbeing programs, and their extensive support for me during my treatment demonstrates the sincerity of their intentions. I was able to cope with the strains of diagnosis and treatment because I’d developed a mindfulness practice thanks to a wellness program at work that included mindfulness training. I breathed and meditated through it all, and I would not have had those skills had it not been for my employer. All of which is to make clear: I don’t blame my employer. We are doing stressful work in a stressful world, everybody’s anxious and insecure. There are no easy solutions.
I could not and cannot go back to feeling that stressed. What could I do?
A colleague put me on to Brené Brown and I listened to her book The Power of Vulnerability while I was recovering surgery, and suddenly a penny dropped. I can use my leadership position to try and remove the anxiety from my immediate vicinity. This is the outcome.
I acknowledge I adapted resources from the workplace wellness program and from Brené Brown’s work to create the Stress Less Take 5. As I explain the theories behind the practices I’ll acknowledge sources and provide links.
Trying to the workplace with love!