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Corporate Health & Wellbeing – Having Conversations That Matter

by Sarah Bickerstaff

As a leader of people there are important conversations that you will have with members of your team during the course of a year. Whatever your company policy is having a focussed discussion annually is insufficient if you want to motivate, engage, inspire, and be trusted by your employees.

Some conversations will happen in the normal flow of the working day, some required protected time to ensure your employee is getting the support, guidance, and connection they require and deserve. Other conversations are a little more challenging, perhaps feel uncomfortable, and would rather be avoided, but which are essential to ensure your credibility as a manager is not compromised. Avoiding the issue does nobody any favours and to sensitively and professionally address concerns when they arise affords employees to learn from their mistakes and take steps to improve and grow (that’s the intention anyway).

I appreciate the pandemic complicated this matter as we adjusted to different ways of working and absorbed the pressure experienced in frontline services to continue to deliver in the midst of the most challenging global crisis seen in our lifetime. However, if you haven’t already done so it is important now, more than ever, to take time out to have conversations that matter.

What I mean by conversations that matter breaks down into two categories, the comfortable conversation, and the uncomfortable conversation although this would be dependent on personal and professional confidence, competence, and experience, what may be an uncomfortable conversation for one manager and very naturally for another. Nevertheless, putting myself in the employee’s shoes, having an uneasy conversation with your manager would be uncomfortable so how I would categorise these would be from that perspective because that is all that matters. We always have to think about who our audience is and adjust accordingly. Putting people at the heart of our approach to management is essential in today’s modern world.

One example that I am focussing on for this article is Health & Wellbeing which may or may not involve sickness absence from work.

During my career in Human Resources, I have dealt with many ill-health matters, supported managers who had to have heartbreaking conversations with members of their team that went beyond the job description, and represented the role of the manager in the most caring, compassionate, and human way. At the end of the day, regardless of job title, we are all people and you can never underestimate the power of that connection with your team, no matter what is happening.

I want to give you an example of what I mean but not from me as a leader, manager, or HR professional but from me as an employee.

In June 2020 whilst in the shower one morning I felt a lump on my breast. I froze, I stopped breathing for what seemed like hours but was only seconds and my head went into flight mode. This can’t be happening I thought, I’m mistaken, I feel well, I don’t have time to be ill.

I thought about my mum, Jacqueline, as I do daily, and how she had a lump discovered through a routine mammogram at age 60 and within 6 months she was taken from us, just like that in 2013. I’d never felt pain like that in my whole life. I heard her in my ear that morning, or maybe it was my heart, telling me to get it checked but I wasn’t sure. What if I’m wrong? What if I waste everyone’s time? We were only a few months into the pandemic and life was getting very complicated. We were told not to go to the hospital or GP unless it was an emergency, was this an emergency? What if I took time off someone that really needed it? For the first week or so I didn’t do anything, tell anyone, not even my husband, son, dad, sister, or best friends. My mum always used to say to me ‘You’re an awfy (Scottish dialect meaning terrible) lassie for keeping things to yourself, you need to stop that, you will make yourself ill’.

What I did, instead of speaking to anyone right away was check my breast, hourly if I am being honest, from different positions hoping to convince my brain that there was nothing there. It didn’t, it was there and I was beginning to recognise that the fear was distracting me from my work and relationships, and I wasn’t being myself.

I made an appointment with the GP, telephone call, of course, we were in full throttle pandemic, but was called down to the Doctors Surgery the next day for an examination. Great I thought, she will check it and tell me it’s nothing and then I can screw my head back on and nobody will be any the wiser. She didn’t. She felt it too. My heart sank as she referred me to the breast clinic under the caveat that she couldn’t guarantee when I would receive an appointment with the current situation but I was now in the system.

I was scared, distracted, emotional but didn’t want to make it obvious because my son might notice and I didn’t want to worry him. He knew what had happened to his Gran Jacqueline and I was sure that would have been his first and only thought, if I’m being honest it was mine too, ‘I’m 46 and I am going to die’.

A few days went by and still no letter from the hospital, I knew I was being unrealistic but I couldn’t wait any longer it was mental torture. I decided to look into going private, which wasn’t cheap but I could be seen within 2 days, I booked it. My Consultant checked me over and couldn’t feel it, I was so relieved but because of my family history, she decided a mammogram would be a good idea.

Sitting in the clinic waiting for my mammogram, I was thinking ‘I will be fine after today this will show there is nothing to worry about’. The radiologist showed me out and asked me to wait until they checked the scans. I waited and waited, other ladies that had arrived after me had been scanned and sent on their way. Something was wrong I thought. I was called back into the room for another mammogram to get a better angle and sent for an ultrasound. I had a lump and it looked suspicious, biopsies were required to confirm what it was. There was a possibility I had Cancer.

I was stunned. I can’t remember getting to my car or driving home but I knew in my heart I had a battle on my hands.

Feeling distracted and not at my best I needed to tell my boss. The timing couldn’t have been worse and this was the last thing he needed to hear. I was worried I wouldn’t get the words out and so decided to text him with the information, he called me right away. I can’t remember what he said word for word but I felt immediate relief by the way he responded to the news and the support he was communicating to me was genuine, compassionate, and kind. I remained at work until I had my operation and intense radiotherapy followed a few months later. It was a physically and emotionally draining experience.

What made a massive difference to me throughout the ordeal was the thoughtful texts and calls (which were always pre-arranged to suit how I was feeling) from my line manager telling me he was thinking about me and that he was there if I needed to talk. He carefully and sensitively considered the message that he needed to share and when with my colleagues, we didn’t tell people right away, I wasn’t ready for that until I knew for sure whether I had Cancer or not.

When I got the formal diagnosis he agreed with me what he should say to my colleagues, it was clear I wasn’t going to be at work for a while, I trusted him enough to know that he would get it right. I was glad he did, I received so much support from my work colleagues through texts, emails, cards, flowers, and a thoughtful gift of a lucky penny. I remember feeling cared for and that made all the difference to me, it lifted my spirits. I wore the lucky penny every day, if someone believed this token would give me luck I was all in, I would take what I could to get me through this nightmare. It helped me, I hope I never have to rely on it again.

When I felt able to return to work my line manager took time to understand my needs and what I needed to do. I will never forget the way he supported me when I was at the lowest point in my entire life. He never judged he listened, he was compassionate, he cared and when he said my Health & Wellbeing was the most important thing to him at that point, I believed every word he said. It was so comforting and reassuring.

My experience, just described, is a prime example of a manager putting his employee at the heart of his approach to managing me as a person. This was people-centered management demonstrated in all its glory, albeit only to me.

Everything is great now, I received the all-clear and I’m on a hormone drug for at least five years following surgery and radiotherapy. Year one under my belt four to go. #standuptocancer

I received the best possible care and support from the NHS at a time of national crisis, the Doctors and Nurses that cared for me during and after will always be in my debt.

I have always been a supporter of Cancer Research UK, even before my mum’s passing in 2013. Following my own experience, I signed up for Cancer Research’s 10k Race for life in 2020 to help the cause, I am not a runner but what a crazy, humbling event to take part in, it was amazing. (I mention this just in case you were wondering what the article photo was about!) Hopefully one day they will find a cure.


The point of the article is to highlight, in my opinion, what real people-centered management is considering one small aspect of Corporate Health and Wellbeing.

As a manager, conversations will crop up that perhaps you have not dealt with previously or which catch you off guard. Regardless of the nature of the discussion, I would urge you to always remember that employees are human beings and there will be more to the surface issue in relation to Health & Wellbeing matters. In my example, it was my mental health as well as the Cancer. How managers choose to approach conversations can make or break the trust between you, once it’s broken you very rarely get it back. Be kind.

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