Where do you do go for support when you've always thought you'd never need any?
Here's the story of Julie, who came to Citizens Advice for help earlier this year....
Like so very many people, there was a time when I took my good health for granted, especially my mental health. I had always been a strong person and someone to whom other people could turn for support. I never stopped to think how vulnerable I might become, when my own life’s trials began to pile up insidiously upon me, one by one.
So it was that, during my middle years, I found myself in a position whereby a combination of life events had not only taken the wind out of my sails, but had completely turned my life upside down. A disabling chronic pain condition, which I was struggling to manage; a new job in a department which was experiencing enormous pressures; then, to top it all, three unexpected bereavements of very close family members within a few months; all came together and served to debilitate me in a way I had never known before. I felt that the ground was crumbling beneath me and I just didn’t understand what was happening.
It started quite subtly, with time off work because I was experiencing physical symptoms when struggling to cope with pain on a daily basis. Over time, I found myself in a downward spiral of pain, exhaustion and depression, and was eventually signed off work by Occupational Health. There then followed some very difficult months at home: continued depression, anxiety with panic attacks which led me to be unable to leave the house at times, elements of paranoia, a total lack of energy whereby I couldn’t even rise up from the sofa for hours on end to do anything purposeful for my husband or family. Added to which, lack of exercise, and craving for sugar to give me some energy, also led to a weight gain of nearly three stone in a year. I was almost unrecognisable as the fit, healthy, positive, hard-working achiever I used to be.
My ill health continued over the year and, sadly, I was never able to return to my position at work. I lost my source of income, as my contract with my long-term employer was eventually terminated via the Capability Procedure. They assured me, however, that my condition wasn’t permanent and that there was, therefore, no need for them to release my occupational pension prematurely. Great emphasis was also placed upon assuring me that they would do everything in their power to support me back into work when I felt ready to return. Feeling very ill and vulnerable, I fully believed them, mainly because I felt that I had always been a hard-working and loyal employee who deserved to be looked after.
It took many years before I regained my confidence within the working environment, and that probably only happened because I was lucky enough to have been supported by a local, private organisation who believed in me and in my abilities. I am eternally grateful to them for that belief.
Finally, the time came when I felt that I was able to pick up my career again and return to my former employer and so I applied for a position with them. I was delighted to hear that I had been successful at interview and I so looked forward to returning to my previous level of work! All the usual formalities were put in place and all that was awaited was a fitness report from their Occupational Health Department, before we could agree upon a start date. I don’t remember even being asked to come for an examination, or meeting with a doctor, but to my utter amazement, the offer of the position was subsequently withdrawn because of that report. Apparently, they considered that I would never have the physical health which would enable me to fulfil the duties of the position; neither were they able to put anything in place which would help me cope with my chronic pain condition in order to fulfil those duties.
I was really hurt and felt very confused. How could it be that I was fit enough not to have my occupational pension released on the grounds of ill health, yet unfit for employment? Also, what had happened to all the assurances that they would help me back into employment as soon as I felt that I was ready to return? These reasons seemed to me to be not only unfair but discriminatory, and so I began to seek help in putting a case together against my former employer.
This was when Citizens Advice really came into its own, as I just couldn’t have considered such an undertaking without their support. They were amazing at building up my confidence and guiding me through the paperwork at each stage and, when they felt they could assist me no longer due to the need for legal expertise, they put me in touch with a firm of solicitors who took on my case on, on a “no win, no fee” basis. Of course, I knew that there would be a penalty to pay for my health, in standing up for what I believed to be right, but it was worth it as my case was eventually settled out of court. It was the principle involved that counted to me, not the small financial compensation.
My case also led on to some changes in procedure within that organisation which will, hopefully, stop others finding themselves in the same position as myself in the future. Also, I was eventually able to secure the release of my occupational pension on the grounds of ill health, albeit at a much lower rate than it would have been if they had agreed to its release before terminating my employment.
It’s a shame that any prospective employee has to resort to legal proceedings in circumstances such as this but, if it weren’t for Citizens Advice how would our voices be heard?