Return to work
Episode 9, 15 December 2022 (Duration: 16:32)
Guests: Rebecca Schmidt-Lachlan
This episode we are speaking with Bec, a young survivor of stroke, about her experience of returning to work.
Preparing for this episode we asked the young stroke community what questions they had and what they really wanted to know about getting back to work after a stroke.
Announcer: Welcome to the Young Stroke Podcast, a podcast for young survivors of stroke and their support crew. Bringing together younger survivors to share their stories, along with tips on living a good life after stroke. The advice given in this podcast is general in nature. Discuss your situation and needs with your health care professionals. This series is presented by Australia's Stroke Foundation and funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services.
Simone: Welcome to episode nine of the Young Stroke Podcast. This episode I'm going to be speaking with a young survivor of stroke about her experience of returning to work. Preparing for this episode we asked the young stroke community what questions they had and what they really wanted to know about getting back to work after a stroke. Today, we're very fortunate to have Rebecca Schmidt-Lachlan, who prefers to be called Bec, on the podcast with us.
Bec is a survivor of a brainstem stroke, an advocate for positive change, and Bec works with people to move forward after life changing trauma. It's so wonderful to have you on the podcast Bec.
Bec: Thank you Simone and I'm very glad to be here.
Simone: And Bec we often start with a bit of background about your stroke. Do you mind sharing your stroke story?
Bec: Yep, no problem. So, I was 26 years old when I had a brainstem stroke. My life went from yay to nay pretty much overnight. My impacts were when I woke up, I was unable to move anything below my eyesight. I wasn't able to walk, talk, speak, write, anything like drive I had to learn all over again.
From that there was about a seven and a half month period where I had to spend in three different hospitals recovering and rehabilitating at different stages.
Simone: Wow. So, a very long period of rehabilitation. And the current impacts from the stroke that you're living with today Bec?
Bec: A little bit of little bit of slurred speech. Not very obvious, but a hint of that. The right arm doesn't want to bend properly at the elbow. So I don't get to straighten that out properly. With my left, ah, right knee I get the same thing where I can't straighten my leg out.
And it's not as obvious but there are some coordination issues on the left side as well, being it's in the brain stem.
Simone: At what stage did you decide to return to work or even look at navigating the return to work?
Bec: I was pretty much planning my return to work while I was still in hospital.
At the age of 26 retirement or things like stepping back is probably the furthest thing from your mind. So pretty much as soon as I was able to get out in end of 2008, I started looking for work again and then secured something in early 2010.
Simone: And so this wasn't returning to a previous job? This was a new job?
Bec: Yes, that was a new job. And trying to find something with the skills I already had, that I knew I could use in the workforce.
Simone: And so one of the questions that came through from the stroke community was “What did you find was the most helpful advice when returning to work?”
Bec: I just want to share this with everyone. If it does look like I'm reading, it’s because I am. I want to give you the most accurate knowledge that I can give you, so I want to make sure I capture everything.
Like most people making the decision to return to work, it's more a personal decision when you feel you are ready. And I just dove back into everything, putting a large amount of pressure on myself more than anything else. I noticed to expect the unexpected. Everything had changed and it would take some adjusting to be myself and know my limits.
Burnout is a real thing. So don't stretch yourself too thin with a heavy workload.
Simone: And did you have to negotiate a gradual return to work or less hours when returning to work? And how did you do this?
Bec: At first I was keen to take on a full time position and wanting to prove to myself that I would return to work. And then I noticed how hard it was pushing myself to keep on par with everyone else. I re-evaluated my priorities and put my health first, applying for roles with less hours to allow for all other activities and chores and some downtime.
Simone: And did you find that that worked better for you to, I guess, be a little bit more realistic and like you said, put your own health first?
Bec: Yes, I did. I had a lot of fatigue and would spend the majority of the evenings just relaxing to recharge for the next day. So after ten years or so of struggling to maintain those energy levels, I worked out that I was much better working within the scope of what works for me instead of trying to accommodate others and leave myself with nothing at the end of the day.
Simone: And so it did take some time to find that balance but you did find that sweet spot?
Bec: It's not something that happens overnight. And I think as your priorities change and things become less important and other things become important it's just a matter of working out what's going to be the best fit. What you're able to do. Mine took me about ten years or so of trying to find that sweet spot, and then I actually got somewhere that I was able to look at different things that might be able to move me forward in what I wanted to do instead of just working to keep paying the bills.
Simone: One of the questions that came through was “Where should I go for support in returning to work?”
Bec: Okay, there are a few organisation I've found that supported my needs and encouraged me to explore my abilities. The local brain injury service have a good understanding of where my skills were at and encouraged me to look into my potential avenues. It took a few times trying to find a job network provider that wanted to work with me for my best interests.
I recommend to keep trying until you find a person that is right for you. It can get tedious at times. The main thing to remember is they need to fit with you and not the other way around. I was also able to connect with StrokeLine and get some information about the services close to me.
Simone: Yeah, I think it's so important what you said around finding that right fit, you know, getting that right person. How many did you have to go through, I guess, in terms of that job network provider or disability service provider? Were there a number of them?
Bec: Over the years? It's been 14 years now since I've had my stroke. I've had to do probably about five or six different job providers. And once I realised that sometimes I’m not going to find someone that wants to work with me, I took it upon myself that I was going to make sure I got the best conditions that fit what I needed to do.
Simone: And what I'm hearing is that you didn't give up. You kept going and you kept really accessing that support and what was available to you as well.
Bec: There are going to be a lot of knock backs and a lot of people that don't really have a lot of understanding around the conditions to accommodate your needs. So I think that you just need to keep looking for that one thing. If you know what your end goal is and what you want to achieve just keep going until you get to where you want to go.
Simone: And was it daunting seeking work after having a stroke Bec? Do you remember how you felt at the time? And, you know, the difference between, I guess, looking for work before you had your stroke versus after your stroke.
Bec: Yes, I was very apprehensive at the beginning. I knew I was going in with a diminished set of skills, which is not appealing to most employers. So I had to try and use a lot of the other skills that I had in my interaction, engagement with people to try and build up a rapport and have a little bit of banter with the people I was having interviews with.
Simone: So really work to your strengths is what I'm hearing, is that right? Sort of you're working with what really skills and strengths you did have?
Bec: Yes, it's is basically, you know what you're good at and if you're good at it, go with it. And I'm sure you’ll be able to find a way to get through whatever you need to get through going through those avenues.
Simone: Something that comes up a lot after stroke is this question of whether to disclose the stroke or even disability in a range of different areas, but in particular when it comes to work. Bec, did you or do you disclose your stroke when returning to work? And how much information do you disclose or share, you know, with employers or even with colleagues that you might be working with?
Bec: Okay. So I did disclose my condition in my resume. I want to find out straight away if any problems arise and it really can let me know whether they're a good employer or not. Deciding to disclose is a personal decision that only you make with your circumstance in mind. Try to think of any long term issues that could arise, and this can help you in choosing which way I want to go.
Simone: So, it sounds like you've been more open in terms of disclosing. That's been your personal approach. I really like what you said around disclosing can also help you to decide what sort of an employer or organisation or company you might be working with. I think that's a really interesting point that you make. It's not just about, I guess, the employer interviewing you, but it's also you checking out whether the workplace is the place that's going to be the right fit for you.
Now, I know some people choose not to disclose for a variety of reasons. I'm keen to hear about your experience of disclosing early on, even in your resume. Has it been a positive one?
Bec: Honestly, there was a lot of times I would send my resume to apply for a position and I didn't even get a reply. And that helped me to weed out, well, I don't really want to be working for them if they don't have that time to do a five second email and say thank you, but no thank you. It was positive when I’d get replies because that was always a good reply and people were really interested in what I had to offer and would usually end up with an interview.
So I think that it's about that determination that it doesn't matter what everyone else is thinking about what you’ve got on the table. It's about what you believe that you’ve got to bring to someone else.
Simone: I think I really like the approach that you take because it's very brave. I think it's really courageous to put, you know, on your CV from that very early stage you've had that stroke because it does put you in a vulnerable position, I guess.
Bec: A lot of people did tell me, no, you shouldn't do that. But I kind of felt, well, I don't really want to work for you if you aren’t comfortable with my changes that most people wouldn't have. So I'm not saying I'm special or anything, I need special things. But there are going to be some things that I may say I can't do depending on what it is.
Simone: Yeah. And I guess it's for you looking at making sure that you're also seeing if there's any red flags early on for a future workplace.
Bec: There are some instances where I've found out later in the piece about the workload and the hours involved and that’s been able to determine, oh, hang on, maybe this might not be the right fit for me. So, I've had to say thank you, but no thank you.
Looking at those different things and making sure that you're not going to get caught out and in the position where you're now having to do something that may step you out of the comfort zone, that little bit too much. It's good to get out of the comfort zone, but when it’s too much, it's a bit daunting.
Simone: Bec, do you have any other advice or tips that you would like to share with somebody considering going back to work or perhaps navigating a return to work at the moment? Perhaps there’s three pieces of, kind of, advice or three tips that you would like to share.
Bec: The first is that I think be yourself, because you don’t want to be changing to suit other people, you want other people to accept you for who you are.
Being confident in the abilities that you do have. It's a great skills that you've got. And just remember, you survived a stroke. A lot of people can’t say that they’ve done that. And that takes a lot of hard work in itself.
And I think that you want to find the right people. Looking for an employer where your abilities are going to be celebrated and supported. And you want to find something that works best for you.
Simone: So really finding the work place that I guess, you know, really encourages and builds on your strengths and abilities as well as the right team and support behind you.
Bec: Yeah. You want to have people that are, not so much on the same wavelength, but they're also are open to different things and change. You don’t want people that are gonna put up roadblocks everywhere that you turn.
Simone: I really like those three tips that you've shared Bec. I think they'll be really helpful for other people looking at returning to work.
My last question for you today is, do you have any advice for someone who perhaps is unable to return to work currently or even longer term? They are not able to get back to work.
What would you share with them?
Bec: Find your passion. And the passion may be something you did as a child and thought you weren’t going to pursue that as you got older because you weren’t encouraged to do so, or what not. Find something that works with what you like to do and things will evolve from there.
Simone: I think that's some great advice. If you need guidance around returning to work, support to remain in the workforce, information or assistance with volunteering or studying. There is help available. You can contact StrokeLine on 1 800 787 653, Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm for information, advice and referral to appropriate support services. You can also email StrokeLine on email@example.com.
Thank you so much for being on this episode Bec and for sharing your experiences of returning to work and tips.
If you found this episode helpful, please share it with your family and friends. Subscribe to the podcast to be notified about future episodes and leave us a review so more of the stroke community can find us. You can also find more blogs by Bec over at the Young Stroke website.
Bec: Thank you very much Simone and thank you for everyone that tuned in and listened.
Simone: Thanks so much Bec.
Announcer: That's all for today's Young Stroke podcast. Find more young stroke resources at young.strokefoundation.org.au. You can listen to dozens of other podcasts on our stroke recovery website enableme.org.au.
StrokeLine's Health Professionals Provide practical, free and confidential advice. Connect with them on enableme or call 1 800 stroke. That's 1 800 787653.
The advice given here is general in nature. Discuss your situation and needs with your health care professionals. The Young Stroke podcast series is presented by Australia's Stroke Foundation and funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services.