This piece was written by a senior leader who has recently left her corporate in response to Matt’s recent article on vulnerability, calling for greater openness. It is hoped that others may be so compelled to write, anonymously or otherwise, of their experiences.
There is an issue I think in the corporate world where it just simply isn’t done to appear weak, to deviate from the image that the corporate has of itself. Things are changing when it comes to clearly identified, visible disability but surely the majority of wellness issues are not visible? There is no ready language in the traditional corporate world to discuss any kind of disability and thus when there is no visible prompt, those dealing with the hidden disability are left speechless and embarrassed.
This sense, almost of shame, about not being the corporate warrior that the culture demands, sets up its own stresses and strains. Let me give you an example.
My corporate loved to run on-sites and off-sites which would start early and end late. The agendas often did not allow for true breaks but supported short periods for networking over coffee or working lunches. Often there would be exercises that meant people stood around in groups contemplating a white board for hours. One notable event required participants to ascend to a conference room high above a hotel lobby via a long and very public flight of stairs (and descend for coffee or breakouts or the loo…and then return again) The hotel had decided to turn off access to the lifts, but would allow single trips if you asked them nicely and gave them an explanation.
This particular conference followed hot on the heels of a final diagnosis for a painful systemic condition that made standing and walking difficult for me. I was not yet ready to call myself disabled, but I was struggling. I felt like each trip up the stairs was a public showcase for my inadequacy. But rather than explain to the organisers (and at a senior level there is never just one but a staff that implement the vision of a single and elusive leader) that I could do with breaks to take medication and a chair during the “standing in a circle” session, I just got anxious and tired and cross. I concentrated not on the subject of the onsite but on masking my pain and fuming at the inconsiderate nature of the organisation to predict my particular predicament….but what was the alternative? To share with a group of people who I did not know well the intimacies of my diagnosis? Not only did I not have the language for that, I had no desire to appear weak.
Then quite by chance I discovered that I was not unique. Talking to a colleague during one of those oh so short breaks I discovered he had a similar issue. Having been in a catastrophic motorbike accident in his youth he was in constant pain. He was unable to take pain medication for other reasons, and that meant he could not stand without being in agony. His legendary recalcitrant nature was a product of this. He too was paying far to little attention to the content of the offsite, distracted as he was.
Since then I have discovered that many of my peers have hidden conditions or disabilities that they do not feel comfortable sharing because to share would require a loss of privacy and challenge their ability to match the image of the fit, energetic and dynamic corporate citizen that was expected. These range from the needs of a diabetic to the requirements of a still nursing young mother. But all this stress is so unnecessary. Surely we could organise things (as I went on to do myself) to allow for these potential different needs by simply thinking and planning for the needs of real people rather than our stereotype of a corporate citizen. People will need different things, different types of accommodations, during the course of their tenure and working life. It is not that failure to provide these are necessarily catastrophic for the firm but, for sure, it will prevent people from giving of their best and generate a heap of unnecessary stress. You do not need to know that someone is disabled, or is contending with some type of illness, but you would be wise to allow for that eventuality in as considerate a way as possible.
One final thing. At the top of a big corporate there is rarely a simple line management structure. Whilst staff who have clear line management may benefit from confiding any particular needs in a good line manager (and conversely suffer if that line manager is less good) there is no such means for very senior staff whose line management may be remote in all senses of the word. The outsourcing and reductions of the HR function can compound the disconnect. That means that our senior leadership are actually the group most likely to be under supported and vulnerable to increased stress as a consequence, and that is an expense no organisation can afford.