Back in 2010, I remember sitting in the desert in India, watching the sunset, drinking chai, writing in my journal and watching the Indians thrash us at volley ball yet again. I’d graduated from university the summer before, and life then, was exciting but incredibly uncertain. I didn’t know who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go next, so I travelled (insert how many miles away India is) to find the answers to those questions. Living with seven girls from across the UK, and a total of 47 people on camp plus a staff team from India gave me the opportunity to find out about their lives, what they’d done, what they wanted to do and why they were there. We all had a story. I realised this after the first night in our homestay, when my room and bed mate (we got to know each other very well, very quickly…) told me why she was there, the fear she felt and the uncertainty that lay before us. Feelings that echoed my own. We made a pact that night “we’re going to get through this together.” From that first night we got on well. And we more than saw our pact through.
India wasn’t a traditional gap year in any sense of the word, the organisation I went with who were funded by Department for International Development, Platform 2, sent young people (18-25 year olds) to volunteer abroad for ten weeks. To be accepted onto the programme you had to be deemed as “disadvantaged” in some way, for reasons of health, finances or other barriers that meant you wouldn’t be able to enjoy a traditional gap yah. So yes, I’ve been able to travel, but it was far removed from our ideas of a gap year. These parameters alone set the tone for the trip.
At this time I didn’t have much experience of work, and had no idea what it meant to look for a career. I left uni, went to India to run away, work out who I am and decide what I wanted to do next. For ages that was to become a teacher, but I’m glad my maths abilities are too awful for that plan to ever become anything other than an idea in my head. At university I was too dyspraxic to get a job just to get by, so I never had those part time jobs in bars or shops, that many of my friends went to after long days in lectures. Not being able to get a so called “easy job” was hard to explain and is equally difficult for people to get their heads around now. I did however work for the university as a student representative, my first real experience of a job that paid money. It essentially involved working on open days, allowing 6th formers from local schools to follow me around for the day and going into schools to talk about university life. This kind of part time job suited me well.
My experiences of employment have changed a lot following the safety net of university, something I need to be suitably vague about for now, due to uncertain legals. I have as a rule disclosed my dyspraxia and sometimes anxiety to employers after successful interviews. I say “sometimes anxiety” because I still have a lot of self stigma around that, this harps back to almost going abroad again a few years later (with a different organisation,) can you spot the running away theme? I was told then by someone who had quite a lot of responsibility for duty of care, that he was ‘totally unpreppared to support me’ because I had disclosed having been on anti-depressants on a medical form. “What if she needs to go back on them again?!” I read in an email. Well bollocks, I say. But reading something like that really does knock your confidence. Even if you are determined to not let it. So, I’ve been understandably cautious since.
I’m writing this after months of reflections, feeling utterly broken and sleepless nights caused entirely by anxiety. I can’t be specific about this, but in some organisation, in a region somewhere, in a job, I experienced bullying, stigma and discrimination again. The sad reality is that many people go through similar but few are able to talk about it or know that there are others out there like them, although unions do exist for a reason. There is also little acceptance of what going though an experience like mine can do to your mental health.
For years I’ve had to take lots of sessional work, not for the lack of trying but because given the current climate that’s all I’ve found available, and universal credit doesn’t sound like an inviting alternative. Sessional work is essentially 0 hours contacts for professionals, that gives you little to no rights. I’ve had several sessional jobs, that claim to offer flexibility, but in reality this is only flexibility for the employer, not you. You are paid for the hours you work. There’s no sickness. No NI contributions. Sometimes you might get holiday pay but most of the time you don’t. And if a session is cancelled for reasons out of your control, you aren’t paid. No one can plan on a contract like this. It also means, that if they decide they don’t want you one day, they are well within their rights to do so. And they don’t expect you to argue. I’ve spoken to employers who see sessional workers as “just sessional workers” and I’ve heard from others on these contracts who believe that they can’t complain. “At least I have a job,” is a fear I hear too often, and rightfully so but it’s so wrong that people have to think like this. The best thing I have ever done is join a union and hold people to account. And I did this without claiming sick pay when I got ill again, because there wasn’t any. There is a bigger campaign in abolishing these kind of contracts but if we get together and stand up for our rights, maybe employers will begin to listen.
I thought I’d identify some of the things I’ve learned at work in the last decade;
Things I’ve learned
1) Join a union
Joining a union has helped me to order my arguments and get advice about where I stand when I was beginning to understand employment law. It also made me realise that how I was feeling about my situation was completely justified, and there was someone prepared to fight my corner and change things.
2) Disclosure is never straightforward
I’ve gone from never disclosing to always disclosing, but I never know what is right. It has never been easy, and if anything knowing the right thing to do has got harder. I think, looking at your situation, what you’d get out of disclosing your disability or health condition and knowing your rights if things go wrong are good steps. If anything, after disclosing I am protected under discrimination laws, but that doesn’t stop people abusing positions of power.
3. Keep a file and back up everything in writing
I was very organised (in all situations I’ve challenged ways I’ve been treated) by keeping a file of all emails, interactions and meetings. Drawing up a timeline also helps plot events. I also, when I realised things were starting to get tricky asked for every conversation to be backed up in writing. This helped to keep a paper trail and provided points of reference for meetings.
4. Read up on employment law (or any other law you’re challenging…)
A union rep is a great source of information, but its always good to go into meetings with some background knowledge. After studying media law at university I will always be in awe of lawyers who have to know all of the laws. The ACAS website became my stable bedtime reading, I found the advice there invaluable. Also read forums or other online communities where people have been through similar situations to you.
5. Seek support from friends and family
Support from my family and friends has been invaluable and is something we all need when going through difficult times. I’ve had people to proof read letters, rant to and discuss strategies with. They also phone me and let me tell them about my cats. This all helps. I wouldn’t have got to where I am now without any of them.
6. Go to a doctor if you need to
Something I hoped I wouldn’t need to do. I was angry it made me feel that way and didn’t want to accept that I was in bits because of difficulties at work. It was affecting me more than I understood at the time but speaking to a doctor put it on my record, and this was further evidence should I need it later.
7. Take time out to do things you’d normally do
This is probably one of the most important of them all, and something I’ve never really managed. Whenever I’ve had to challenge something, whether at work, university or volunteering, it has totally consumed my life. I thought that my life had to revolve around getting results by fighting whatever it was at the time. It has always been exhausting thinking this way. At no time have I ever thought “Yes, this thing being all of my life is the right thing.” It never is and your mental health will take a battering as a result. Just like during periods of anxiety, I’ve avoided friends, would only talk to my parents about the one thing on my mind and stopped doing things I would usually do. Please don’t let it consume your life. Have days off. It will still be there when you get back, and having a day to enjoy yourself won’t make the world end, I assure you. The one thing I wish I’d done is see friends more, and now I’m almost at the other side of it, I’m determined to put this right.
8. Know your limits
It’s no use trying to save the world if your mental health is going to suffer. Employment tribunals, grievance meetings and the time it takes to get together evidence to make a case is exhausting. This exhaustion is often magnified for those of us who have anxiety or other mental illnesses. You will spend every waking moment writing letters. And every subconscious moment (when you do get to sleep) dreaming about every possible outcome. Sometimes saying, I’ve done all I can do now and focussing on your mental health is better than pushing on until you have no fight left in you. If walking away after having your say is the better thing for you, and your wellbeing, please do that. Equally just knowing that you weren’t at fault is sometimes better than the stress of taking things further.
Back in the golden sands and sunshine of the Thar desert, when I was an unsure 21 year old searching for something I didn’t have a name for, I would never have imagined then that I’d experience difficulties in the workplace or volunteering five times in a decade, most of these times I was too tired and inexperienced to say something was wrong, until the last and very recent time. And I know, more than anything that this certainly isn’t going to be the last. In India I was there to teach the children but quickly realised that the kids of Jaisalmer taught me more, and have helped me to evaluate things even to this day.
Next month I’m 30, and I know that I’ve definitely not found what I was looking for in the desert back than, maybe it didn’t even exist or maybe I’ve just found something else. Either way, I wanted to write this because it was important for me to explain the last few months without the specifics, and to put this in writing so that I almost believe it myself. It doesn’t matter whether you are a sessional worker or Chief Executive, situations that resemble the above and make you feel undervalued or bullied, are not okay. It’s hard having to tell people this, but you really do feel brilliant once you get to have your say. And sometimes having a say is all we need.