Mrs Stone had dementia. Every time I went to her room she had forgotten who I was, or that she was in a nursing home. She had forgotten her age, the year and much of her presence. She was here, but lost. She was often frightened and confused. Mrs Stone was someone I cared for professionally. She wasn’t my mum- but she could have been. The Alzheimer’s Society (2015) reports there are over 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today. Of these, approximately, 40,000 are people with young onset dementia. At the age of 59, Mrs Stone might also have been my colleague.
We regularly get feedback about the fact that we consider dementia within our workplace training. We provide an overview of the illness- signs and symptoms that you might expect-alongside links to the many great charities, services and online resources that offer information and support. However, providing an explanation of the illness isn’t all we do. Our main focus is the workplace. We ask questions about the impact a workplace might have on someone who is in a caring role and vice versa. We discuss ways in which to navigate a reasonable path between competing demands. We dispel myths in order to open dialogues between individuals and teams.
Some of the key messages we deliver are these:
- Dementia isn’t synonymous with Alzheimer’s. There are many different types of dementia and some people may present with a combination of types.
- Young onset dementia- why the workplace must know the signs and symptoms
- Make use of your EAP- it can be a valuable source of advice for carers especially regarding the financial and legal aspects of caring
- Being a carer adds an extra layer of complexity to an individuals’ life. It is essential that managers can tune in to their teams, pay attention and notice when someone is under pressure or strain
- Carers often don’t perceive themselves as such- rather as a son, daughter, husband, wife etc. Being able to facilitate a professional conversation focused on supporting your colleague to balance competing demands, is a key skill for any manager
These messages are important and serve as a reminder that we all have a life outside of work. In many instances we are juggling numerous commitments, with home life impacting on work and work life impacting on home.
There’s a bit more to the story too- we wanted to draw on experiences within the team and provide honest reflections about the impact reasonable adjustments can have on the way a team communicates and works together.
For us, adjusting working hours was pretty straightforward. The re-direction and distribution of work happened- sometimes effortlessly; other times with persuasion. The greatest challenge for the team was developing a new set of rules: When is it OK to contact our colleague on the agreed dedicated carer days? How do we discern what is an urgent business priority vs. the priority of the caring going on behind the scenes? Feeling awkward to be interrupting even when we know it’s not a good time. For our colleague it was about: feeling guilty whatever they were doing:Guilty at work because you’re not with your parent… Guilty with your parent as someone else may be picking up your work, feeling fearful that work does not really believe you or truly understand, being really over stretched and resentful of others in the team who do not have much work to do, lacking concentration, always worried and needing to be attached to the phone in case something is wrong
It took effort to make adjustments that could reasonably maintain overall team performance whilst also valuing and supporting individual mental health. But we managed it.
After all, what’s to be gained from separating the people in the business from the people they are outside of work?