MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 02-Jun-14 10:15:54

Guest post: 'Women are risking their health for fear of seeming weak at work'

Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union, almost died because she refused to take time off work for her chronic illness. Here, she argues that it's essential for those at the top to show vulnerability.

Sally Hunt

University and College Union

Posted on: Mon 02-Jun-14 10:15:54

(22 comments )

Lead photo

"I desperately wanted to give the impression that everything was normal"

In the autumn of 2012 I started to feel steadily more poorly. But frankly, I was far too busy to be ill. Sound familiar, anyone?

There was a lot going on at work. Days were spent in national meetings on pay, pensions, various disputes. Add to that spending days worrying about and then defending the union in a tribunal case. And tackling a restructure.

Of course, I ignored it for as long as I could. As the months passed I found eating more difficult, could not sleep and found myself in pain more often than not. By Easter 2013, I was getting worse and at long last I finally stepped off the carousel and got help. Within a very short time, I found myself admitted to hospital and facing a barrage of tests.

I was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis and underwent a series of treatments, none of which worked. As I was soon to find out, I was one of 140,000 people who have this condition and suffer in silence.

I was told I would need an operation. Like a textbook control freak I refused to accept this and avoided the operation for as long as I could. It took a doctor telling me in no uncertain terms that without the operation I could die to make me accept I had to surrender. I did it with ill grace.

So why was I so reluctant to slow down?

I am a member of a relatively small group of workers: female trade union leaders. Even though 55% of trade union members are female, just 14 of Britain's 54 unions are led by a woman. The traditional image of the trade union boss as looking and sounding macho remains largely true today.

Too many women, lots of them mothers, get ill because they ignore the signs and grind themselves into the dust at work. I know that because I was one of them, and my experience tells me we need to do more than pay lip service to work-life balance.


Professional women – particularly in male dominated jobs like mine - too often feel we have to work twice as hard just to be considered half as good, and we don't dare to show anything that could be considered a sign of weakness.

I desperately wanted to give the impression to my team, staff and the 120,000 UCU members that everything was normal. It is ironic, to say the least, that as someone who represents people in need of good care I failed to look after myself.

In hospital you are utterly vulnerable and dependent upon others. I saw first-hand the amazing care and skill provided by doctors and nurses. Thinking about how they had learnt their professions in colleges and universities taught by my union's members made me reflect how the people I represent do important, amazing work which makes a huge a difference to people's lives.

I am very lucky that I have a good employer. It was my own refusal to slow down or stop that led me to getting so sick. Once I had to stop, my employer was fantastic and I knew I could take the time to recover (no matter how frustrating I found it).

But too many other people don't have that crucial safety net and soldier on or cannot take the time they need. A decent and fair society is one that looks after its most vulnerable. We still require a proper social safety net for people when they need it.

Too many women, lots of them mothers, get ill because they ignore the signs and grind themselves into the dust at work. I know that because I was one of them, and my experience tells me we need to do more than pay lip service to work-life balance.

And the life bit is so important – the loneliness and isolation of being ill has brought into sharp relief how important the unconditional support of your family and friends is. So, hold them close and put them first.

At our annual conference last week I told this story. I've had a long absence from work and the members are owed an explanation. I hope that sharing my experiences might go some way towards changing our working culture and stop people thinking they can or should just soldier on.

Now I fully understand what it's like to be unable to work and to need extra support. More people, particularly those at the top, should admit it when things aren't going well. The more we can talk about being vulnerable human beings, the better.

I also hope that by talking about this that women dealing with colitis privately, don't. It can be a horrible, debilitating condition which can make working very difficult. Nobody should let it get to such an extreme where not dealing with the problem makes it much worse. It's not worth it.

The Crohns and Colitis charity is currently running a campaign to highlight the high cost of prescriptions, find out more here.

By Sally Hunt

Twitter: @ucu

CMOTDibbler Mon 02-Jun-14 11:20:56

I don't think this is an issue of women, rather of the modern working environment. People are terrified to have time off as you are likely to be penalised for it, and I've seen this happen

Onesleeptillwembley Mon 02-Jun-14 11:26:53

Sex is irrelevant. Blaming everything on your sex does females no favours.

ithaka Mon 02-Jun-14 12:05:08

I agree with the other posters, men are also under pressure to show no weakness and soldier on. Let us stand together as workers on this one, it is not a female only issue. United we stand, let us not create divisions when an issue clearly cuts across the gender divide.

sleeplessbunny Mon 02-Jun-14 12:07:05

In my experience, more men are guilty of this than women.

Phineyj Mon 02-Jun-14 12:10:24

I agree about men suffering in silence - I think it is easier for women to say they are going to the doctor. Bosses don't want to ask what for, in case it's something embarrassing! However, as a side issue the way ante-natal appointments are organised (in the middle of the day, no choice of times and usually at a hospital near the woman's home not workplace) doesn't do anyone any favours.

ithaka Mon 02-Jun-14 12:11:10

Actually, I agree sleeplessbunny and they often do it to themselves. My DH went back to work too soon after our son died. He did not know what else to do, but it was heartbreaking to witness & the damage to his health was huge.

So excuse me while I give a hollow laugh at it being a particularly female issue to not prioritise your health in the face of an uncaring employer.

CluelessCrapParent Mon 02-Jun-14 13:22:12

I also agree that this not related to gender. At a time when your career generally speaking peaks, is when you hit middle age, and that's when work can be extremely stressful and pressured, and your body starts degenerating and it becomes critical to keep monitoring and on top of health issues, but many ignore the signs and just carrying on the hamster wheel.

Think I remember reading something a while back that men in their 40's and 50's are most likely to die of various diseases (high blood pressure, heart disease etc.), precisely because they don't take the time out from work to take stock of their health. Isn't that why they recommend regular health checks for over 40's?

RubySparks Mon 02-Jun-14 15:34:00

I think there is a gender aspect though in that women are more likely to have extra responsibilities at home as well as trying to prove themselves at work.

CMOTDibbler Mon 02-Jun-14 16:18:59

Ruby, one could also argue that more men are the major (or sole) income earner for a family, and so might feel more pressure to not compromise that income.

I know that a major part (aside from workplace bullying) of my dhs nervous breakdown was that he felt he couldn't rock the boat as I had lost the use of one arm and was in terrible pain and my work future was uncertain.

ILoveMyCaravan Mon 02-Jun-14 18:09:19

This is not a gender issue at all. My DH had to put off surgery for months as he is self-employed and could only have the surgery during the very short space of time when there wasn't much work on. He went back to work too soon after the surgery because he had no choice.

Sally Hunt is extremely lucky to have a good employer, most of us don't.

FastWindow Mon 02-Jun-14 21:44:24

I didn't see any mention of children Sally. You did a quick bit of lip service (yes you did) 'many of them mothers' but what you seem to be saying is that as a woman you have to try twice as hard to be seen as half as good - å quote you've borrowed and not quoted.

eurochick Mon 02-Jun-14 22:38:27

I don't see a gender aspect to this at all. Men and women do this.

BuggersMuddle Mon 02-Jun-14 23:41:00

As a women with ulcerative colitis, I fought my symptoms to stay at work. Why? Because I thought I'd be put on less interesting projects, my ratings and pay rises would suffer and I'd be 'watched' for signs of ill health for years before being trusted to operate at my previous level. You know what? I was absolutely right.

To get my career back on track I had to take a sideways step to another organisation, because even though I've been well for years, I quickly realised that I would always be seen as fragile.

No-one at my new employer knows about my condition, not will they unless it's absolutely necessary.

Like many other things (mental health being the most obvious), it would be great if there was no stigma and we could all be transparent. I won't be volunteering to go first.

PastaandCheese Tue 03-Jun-14 07:01:18

buggersmuddle I'm so sorry to hear of your experiences.

I just wanted to add that is exactly what my DH's work is like. He has 15 years service and has never taken a day off sick always dragging himself in.

My work are a bit more tolerant but it's not the type of job where anyone can 'cover' for you. I've had the odd day off over the years but the catching up is horrendous.... Still have to do all the work I would have done had I not been ill. Holidays are the same. For that reason people soldier on at my work rather than fear of seeming weak.

IME it's not a gender issue and can be just as much to do with massive workloads as fear of seeming weak.

PartialFancy Tue 03-Jun-14 09:23:43

I agree with everyone about it not being a gendered issue in paid work.

But I have noticed a related issue on MN: people who can't take time off their unpaid work.

It's not a constructed issue like wanting to prove yourself, when your daily grind is looking after an elderly relative with dementia and three pre-school children, one with health issues.

There's no employer to be good wrt leave or take ultimate responsibility. And I've seen people here say they can't go into hospital until some months' time, because of caring duties.

People who accept caring duties are disproportionately female. But it's hidden. They may be "economically inactive", after all.

Sorry, that's a slight derail of the OP. But I think there are women too busy to seek medical help - where you weren't looking.

(There are also SAHP with less demanding duties and more support, who can attend a doctor's more easily than full-time paid workers. But that's cold comfort for the hard-core carers.)

magso Tue 03-Jun-14 09:39:41

I agree that both men and women find it hard to prioritise their health, over work and home responsibilities. The pressures on each person may be slightly different. Traditionally female employees have been considered the weaker sex, due to the demands of child bearing and rearing, so women may feel particularly vulnerable when taking time off for illness.

I think there is a culture , particularly among professions, work places and families to put work and family first and ourselves last. It starts early on, with going to school no matter how unwell we are, - I only remember being off sick as a school child for chicken pox and other obvious infectious illnesses. If there is a gender difference it is perhaps in our conditioned priorities. Dh is even less likely to take time off to be ill, and has the added pressure of knowing he must provide the lions share to support us all. He often comes home from long haul flights, brewing a chest infection but goes into work - sometimes straight from the flight - jet lagged and unwell. It is only since my health failed that he will take time off to care for family, - again his own health needs are bottom of the pile.

I had a similar experience of getting more and more ill, eventually ending up critically ill, with almost everything failing. For me it was not work pressures (although I was at work the day before my hospital admission) but my duties as mum to our disable child. I could not afford to be ill. It needed a whole new attitude change and way of life for me to even attempt to recover.
I eventually got back to very part time work, and plod along- and have to pace carefully-which is all I can do now.

madwomanbackintheattic Wed 04-Jun-14 18:38:09

Yup. This is not a gendered issue.

The unpaid work issue is, for sure. But that's not relevant to Sally Hunt's story. If she were to expand on her unpaid work contributing to her illness because her husband (?) wasn't being allowed to work flexibly (because of his gender) to take on the childcare role that she was therefore unable to give up, or if she was discussing the gendered issue of men not being able to parent equally because of work commitments, and the culture that contributes to this, all good.

As it is, this story is not doing women in the workplace any favours at all. It's not harder, just equally as hard as a woman to accept chronic illness and deal with it.

The title is bloody awful. It suggests women are weaker and should just admit it, as they can't keep up against men and are hurting themselves trying.

Ugh.

Major backfire, Sally.

funnyperson Thu 05-Jun-14 00:03:36

I have the same condition. I think men soldier on too, but I also think they are treated better and sooner by the nhs and by their nurturing womenfolk at home.
I think it important to be honest and open about long term illness with employers. Time is needed to attend hospital appointments. Levels of energy are not as high as the healthy. Exacerbations of illness may need time off sick more frequently than the healthy.
Lifestyle changes have to be made. A work-life balance has to be taken seriously. Taking time off the unpaid work ie looking after family, especially elderly parents, needs to be thought through. One's children, in my experience, are marvellous at coping with chronically ill parents. It is the frail parents of the ill parents who are problematic.
I am sorry for Sally and wish her well. I have a big carrier bag of medicines monthly from the chemist, have tablets for breakfast, and prepay my prescriptions. Not working isn't an option as I am the main breadwinner.
I heard a very interesting talk from Cincinnati about the variation in good medical practice treating ulcerative colitis in the USA. Although there are good guidelines on the best way to medically treat this condition, not all doctors follow them and there are unnecessary hospital admissions as a result. I am sure this is the case in the UK too. In addition, infliximab, an effective treatment is available in a very limited way in the UK compared with the rest of Europe as it is expensive.
Apologies for the long post.

funnyperson Thu 05-Jun-14 00:12:08

Its not a gender issue. Didnt Bob Crow die of a heart attack?

JaneParker Thu 05-Jun-14 09:07:04

I think the country has got a bit too full of skiving wimps so if you want to do well whether you are male or female it gets easier and easier as you just have to show up and not be off sick all the time and making a meal of things.

I do which women would do what most of us manage - equality at home. Never do more than your half even for one day.

MmeLindor Fri 06-Jun-14 15:50:58

Men get ill too, but I do think that women are more likely to have extra stress at home eg caring for children and/or elderly relative, or doing the majority of the housework on top of a stressful job.

funnyperson Fri 06-Jun-14 19:10:44

lol janeparker you are so right- though its only when one has diseases that 'showing up' becomes something which takes out of the ordinary effort. Perhaps it is also because when one does show up one likes to do a good and thorough job.

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