Working from home is the ideal solution for many disabled people and those with health conditions, enabling them to work and utilise their otherwise wasted skills. Since the Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown, thousands more have started working from home. If you’re finding this way of working tricky, whether you’re an employee or employer, these 5 tips from Victoria Clutton, who has chronic fatigue syndrome, will help make it work for you.
After a 20-year battle, I have finally found a job I love. But it hasn’t been easy. I have a maths and computer science graduate, so good qualifications. But my chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), which is also known as ME, means I need work that accommodates my symptoms.
These include pain, extreme fatigue, sensory overload and, on very bad days, brain fog, which can mean I am unable to concentrate or even speak.
Despite the sometimes debilitating symptoms of CFS/ME, since the age of 16, I have always been determined to find work and persevere with my career dreams.
It took me 14 years to complete my degree course with the Open University, but I stuck at it. I took several long breaks because my health was so up and down. At one stage, the medication I was on meant that I regularly slept up to 22 hours a day.
A few years later, I was deemed fit for work and the Jobcentre declared that I could work from home. But, without any employment history or skills to offer, I couldn’t find a suitable position that would fit my additional needs. So I was unable to support myself financially. I struggled to even buy food and nearly lost my home.
It was around that time that I heard about the charity Astriid, which helps people with long-term health conditions to get back into work. As a result, I secured my first-ever job. It was as a communications coordinator for a global engineering company, and I loved it.
In England, around 15 million children and adults live with chronic disease, according to the Department of Health.
Astriid estimates that across the UK, there are hundreds of thousands of people with a wide range of qualifications, skills and experience that are being excluded from the workforce because of long-term medical conditions.
It says that if business leaders changed attitudes towards inclusion and diversity practices, health issues would no longer be an obstacle to successful and productive employment.
Many people with CFS/ME don’t work. This is not because of a lack of willingness or laziness, but because of obstacles. A typical day for me is worlds apart from a typical day for a healthy person, so I don’t tick any of the rigid boxes associated with what work is supposed to look like.
It’s frustrating and disheartening because it feels like you’re being labelled by society as ‘unemployable’. There needs to be a fundamental change.
I’m really hoping that with the outbreak of Covid-19 and many more people working from home, employers will realise that flexible working is not a bad thing. It can, in fact, mean talented people aren’t sidelined and have a chance to really make a difference.
If you’re working from home – whether you always have or are needing to do it for the first time – I hope my tips will help to make you just as efficient as you would be working anywhere else.
1. Make your workspace conducive to work
If you are working remotely you need to take your workspace seriously. Have a good-sized table or desk, a supportive and comfortable chair and any ergonomic aids you need to be comfortable and productive.
Make sure your workspace is as completely frictionless to use as is possible. Make it a pleasant space that’s conducive to concentration and being in ‘work mode’.
If you have a separate room you can use, great. But if you don’t have the space for that, zone your workspace off as much as possible. Mine is a zoned off part of my living room in a distinct space, and that works just as well for me.
2. Consider online timers for regular breaks
I understand that some people find working from home to be very distracting. The kitchen is nearby, the TV is right there, etc. I find the best way to deal with a lot of those problems is to use the Pomodoro technique.
This is where you work in 25-minute blocks with a 5-minute break between each one. For me, I adapt it slightly to have longer breaks because of my illness. There are lots of free online timers you can use for your 25 minutes. I have my timer running visibly while I work.
I find that this system really helps me focus and be aware of how I’m spending my time. The rest breaks are also a really good prompt to get up, move around, make yourself a drink, etc.
I also find that this system helps to keep my work time as concentrated as possible and separate from my personal time. One of the dangers of working remotely is that the boundary between those two things can blur. it means you can find yourself overworking and not giving yourself sufficient downtime.
3. Good IT and online connections are critical
In order to make remote working easier, well-organised information and communication are key. From home, you can’t simply ask the work colleague sat next to you a question. So workers need to be able to easily get answers to common queries.
Having a robust and comprehensive intranet is very helpful. As an employee, it also really helps to see where you are in the organisation and how your work contributes to the company and access information, so make sure you have this information.
Online forums and social events can also be a great way to replace some of the interactions that workers get through proximity. If you’re an employer, make sure you put these in place. And if you’re an employee, why not suggest or even set one up yourself?
Having good IT support is also great for remote workers. They can’t simply switch out a problematic laptop or piece of kit as easily as an on-site worker could.
If you’re struggling with any of these things, speak to your employer about them. It’ll help to make everyone more efficient.
4. The value of keeping in touch meetings
One thing that I find incredibly helpful is weekly 1-2-1 catch up meetings with my boss. Sometimes we only talk for a few minutes. Other times we cancel. And sometimes we talk for over an hour. It all depends on what’s happening that week and how much we have to go through.
How every you do it, it’s a great opportunity to catch up, plan, talk through options and get approval for things.
It means you can run through stumbling blocks and problems that weren’t urgent enough for a call or email, and pick you bosses’ brain for contacts or ideas. This time can also be used to inform you of strategy changes that impact you.
It really helps me to feel connected to the rest of the company and has let me develop an excellent relationship with my boss.
5. Plan for the future after lockdown
With coronavirus being something that we’re most likely going to have to deal with semi long-term, having a remote-working plan going forward is a good idea.
It’s worth setting up procedures to deal with the need for increased flexibility. This will help the company better deal with the unexpected and minimise the impact of future disruptions.
See this as an opportunity to get procedures in place, figure out what works, and try new things. What we learn now will be incredibly helpful for at least the medium-term.
If you’re an employee, use this time to feedback to your company on what does and doesn’t work, and suggest new ideas. After all, you’re the one on the ‘frontline’ trailing it all.
At the end of the day, flexible working has the potential to make companies more flexible, better able to retain skilled workers and weather disruption in the future. What business wouldn’t want that?
For further information on Astriid, to sign up as a partner, become a member, advertise a position or donate, visit its website. You can also join in the conversation about disability and employment on its social media channels Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram using the hashtag #InvisibleTalentPool.
By Victoria Clutton
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