Returning to work after time out from a serious illness is a huge challenge, not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. While it can be a relief to finally have a diagnosis, it is daunting to have to come to terms with this and look ahead to living your life with a long-term.
In my case, the condition in question is Addison's Disease, a chronic failure of the adrenal glands, which can be fatal if not treated properly.
But just under six months ago, having a few years of diagnosis under my belt, I decided it was time to push myself to the next level, while also giving back to the charity that had helped me and others in my situation since diagnosis, the Addison’s Disease Self Help Group (ADSHG).
So after hearing of a few of my friends taking on the Thames Path Challenge, 100km over two days, I decided to sign up too.
But what I hadn't expected was how beneficial it would be professionally.
Dealing with a diagnosis is not easy to come to terms with. I’ve been lucky: the firm I work for, a small communications company, has been supportive, patient and flexible as I’ve built my way back into full time work.
But the difficulty is, there's not really an end-point when returning from sick leave. You might feel better in yourself, but people’s own perceptions about your health (or lack of it) can persist. For instance, a sick day for most people is taken as just that: a sick day. When you've been ill, however, it can be treated as evidence you’re not up to the job.
Setting a challenge, and committing to seeing it through, has been a great way to move beyond this.
It's also a way of 'coming out' about your illness, in a positive and controlled way. When you’re returning to work, this luxury isn't always open to you. As an employee, you have to bow to other people's demands, and to some degree, through no fault of the employer, other people's narratives.
While everyone has the very best of intentions, not having a clear and direct line of communication can make it difficult for colleagues to have a clear and honest picture of what you are going through on a daily basis.
Human nature also means that people tend to see things in black and white: either you are completely better, with nothing whatsoever wrong with you, or you are a spent force, and unable to keep up with the demands of working life.
It’s a difficult balance for anyone to get right, especially when you are just one of a number of people with competing demands.
Letting people know your plans, explaining what has happened to you and where you are at allows you to regain ownership of the condition – and this can be done simply and effectively through setting up a JustGiving page.
It's easy to tell people that you are ok and that you can manage. But actions speak louder than words.
Taking on the equivalent of marathons over two days is a tough ask for someone who, just two years ago, was unable to walk even a short distance without being exhausted.
It signals that you are physically and mentally up to the mark.
It is an effective way of explaining to clients and associates where you are in your career and why. I have had some raised eyebrows about my perceived lack of progress – I've technically been in the same position for four years and in a demanding industry, this can easily be interpreted as either lack of ambition, or worse, lack of talent.
But it gives you a way to explain this, while also taking into account your employer’s needs and the supportive role they have played throughout the process.
Then there are the physical benefits.
Committing to a challenge has forced me to develop a consistent and challenging exercise regime. I have regular personal training sessions, run weekly and cover a lot of km per week, as well as consciously following a sensible, balanced diet.
This has translated into higher energy levels, better concentration and better overall health. Additionally, it has helped my organisational skills. All of these have had a positive impact on the quality of my work.
The challenges of living and working with a serious condition persist. But the rigours of preparing for the Thames Path Challenge have helped me move beyond the everyday and approach each new challenge with renewed resolve and confidence.
Sophie is taking on the Thames Path Challenge on the second weekend of September and we wish her the best of luck.