Paul is a UNISON member and activist in the Community and Voluntary Organizations Branch. Below Paul describes the challenges he has faced as a disabled person in the workplace and how UNISON have helped support him at work.
I identify as a disabled person. I am living with HIV/AIDS which is covered by disability legislation. I also suffer with asthma and depression. I spent two years in therapy (counseling) for clinical depression and have also been on anti-depressant medication. I have two inhalers I use to control my asthma. I am currently 62 years old. I do not receive any benefits and have to work full-time as I live alone. One of the main disability related health problems that I have is living with a fatigue syndrome which is a side effect of the HIV medication. However I now also suffer with osteoporosis which is another side effect of the HIV medication and I also have high blood pressure. In the last three years I have had three operations, a double-hernia repair and two prostate biopsies as I have a growth in my prostate which could turn malignant at any time and needs ongoing monitoring.
When I started the job I wish to discuss, I started as a temp and was told that if they were happy with me, that the job would be permanent. I would like to point out at this stage that when I started working for this employer, my health both physically and mentally was good and I felt more than capable of working and getting the best out of my life despite the problems I had to live with. After two months temping they asked me to work for them permanently, I agreed to this. I was then given an application form to formally apply for the job and was also given a health screening questionnaire. I was informed by the human resources officer that when I filled them in, I was to give everything, including the health screening questionnaire, back to human resources. I had filled in health screening questionnaires before and I was always given an envelope to post it straight back to the Occupational Health provider. I immediately thought that this was wrong and this made me realise that this employer was not very honest in their process of recruitment. The organisation I work for runs care homes for mentally disabled people and has the accreditation “Positive about Disabled People” however it does not run any Disability Awareness courses for its staff and my experience of working there is that disabled people are not welcome in the workplace.
When I was given the application form, I was also given a copy of the organisation’s Equality and Diversity policy which has good clauses in it about supporting disabled people in the workplace. I was delighted when I read the sentence, “and will support people living with HIV and AIDS”. Little did I know what lay ahead of me?
I work in the head office finance department. When I was taken on permanently I asked if I could visit some of the care homes to get to know the wider organisation and see first-hand the type of work the organisation does. I was told that this was not necessary, that my role was based at head office and I did not need to know anything about any of the other activities of the organisation and that I would meet some of the managers of the homes as they would come to head office for various reasons.
Approximately one year after I started my job I became ill. The illness was mostly stress-related, the effect of which increased my feelings of fatigue. I was off work sick for one week and during that week I emailed human resources and discussed with them in full, all my health problems and disability and the side effects of medication. I asked for a referral to Occupational Health. It took my employer six months to organise the meeting with OH. I requested the referral in April and saw OH in the October. The doctor was very supportive and wrote to my employer confirming my illness which he pointed out is covered by disability legislation and also informed them of the side effects of the medication. He informed them of the fatigue syndrome and recommended that as a reasonable adjustment that I should be allowed to work from home on a periodical basis. My employer refused to allow this eventhough other people in the organisation were allowed to work from home on occasions. I carried on in the workplace but the tiredness I experienced seemed to diminish my quality of life, after about another two years I became ill again mostly from the tiredness but also the pressure I was under in the workplace as my situation with the fatigue syndrome was not in any way accommodated. My employer had taken on a new contract which increased my workload but there was no extra staff taken on to alleviate the pressure. At the same time my employer increased all staff working week from 36 hours to 39 hours, anyone who would not work the 39 would lose 3 hours pay from their salary every week. I could not afford to lose the money, as I was already on a low salary, so I agreed to work the 39 hours and signed the new job contract. As I was now working a longer week I was also given the duty of petty cash to carry out. I was now working longer hours with more work, the pressure increased even more.
I was off sick again for a week and on returning to work I again asked for a referred to OH which happened quite quickly this time. Again the doctor was very supportive and explained to me that part of his role now in line with current government regulations was to maintain me, as a disabled person, in the workplace. He wrote a very strong letter to my employer clearly pointing out that he was recommending my working from home on a regular basis as a reasonable adjustment and that this is a legal matter and that my employer should consider the recommendation carefully. He said that the decision to increase my working week from 36 to 39 hours was flawed but my employer refused to alter my working hours. It was agreed that I would work from home one day a fortnight. Not long after the working from home started, I began to suffer bullying from my manager.
In 2014 I developed kidney problems which was identified as toxicity from the HIV medication. I was referred to another clinic where I received intensive support for just over two years until the problem was resolved. It was also at this time that my medical team discovered the growth in my prostate after performing a series of x-rays on my kidneys. My work attendance remained good however I did have extra hospital appointments because of the intensive support I was receiving and then also had the time off for the prostate biopsy operations. It was around about this time that the bullying became intensive.
I remember when I first started the job, at the first team meeting I attended, the director asked me as a new starter, to tell the team some things about myself. I told them the obvious stuff, that I was from Ireland, had lived in London for just over 30 years, had worked in local government for nearly 20 years, etc. but I also said that most of my spare time now goes on renovating an old house I had recently bought. I did not mention anything about my health problems at this team meeting. Sometime after that at a one-to-one meeting with my manager, I yawned and apologised for doing so. My manager asked me if I was tired and I replied yes that I was. His mood and attitude then totally changed, he looked at me with a very serious expression on his face and he said that I should be resting at the weekends so that I am fit for work on a Monday morning and not working on my house. I was totally shocked at his outburst and felt that something I had been invited to say in confidence had now been betrayed. I get great relaxation out of looking after my home and garden, something I have even discussed with my doctors and they are all in agreement that to have something therapeutic like that in a person’s life is good if they enjoy it. I regarded my manager’s comments as harassment because my private life is none of his business and I did not see him as a person to give me advice on how I should live my life or care for my health.
Another time at a one-to-one meeting my manager asked me if I would get my local government pension at 60 (I was about 56 at this time) and asked me if I intended to retire then. I replied saying that I was unsure as retirement was something I had not thought about. I asked him why he had asked such a question and he replied saying that I should think about retiring as I did not seem to be able to keep on top of my workload but at the same time, there was no assessment of what the workload involved and whether or not it was reasonable or achievable.
One day my manager called me into an ad hoc meeting and said that he felt that I was not working my 39 hours. I replied saying that I thought I was and that on the days I work from home, I do a longer day and extra work to what was agreed as a reasonable workload for the day, in order to catch up for any time I had lost in being a little late on occasions. He replied saying that I had to fulfil my job contract and do my 39 hours every week. He said that he had concerns about my workload, I replied saying that I felt that the workload was growing and that it was difficult to manage, he replied saying that whatever came into my workload, I had to do it all and complete it in a timely manner.
One day my manager came to my desk early in the morning and said to me with a very strong tone in his voice that there was a lot of work on my desk to be done and that it was all to be cleared before I left that evening. I examined what was there and realised his request was totally unreasonable and I felt disheartened that I had been spoken to like that and also had concerns about the sudden pressure I was being put under. I went out to the toilet and was suddenly felt ill. I returned to my desk and informed my manager that I was not feeling well and that I felt it was best if I went home. I slept badly that night and woke up about 4am with a terrible pain in my chest. At 8am I called a mini-cab to go to my GP surgery. The woman on reception called the doctor immediately and he helped me into his surgery as I was feeling weak . He said that he felt I had suffered a mild heart attack and called an ambulance immediately. I was taken to hospital and spent the day there undergoing tests but they could not find any evidence of a heart attack and I was allowed home in the evening. I stayed off work for one week and emailed the human resources officer and told her what had happened. When I returned to see my GP he gave me a copy of the discharge letter from the hospital which stated that the diagnosis for the incident was anxiety and elevated blood pressure.
Another day at a one-to-one meeting, my manager “interrogated” me about my health. He wanted to know every tablet I was taking, what it was for, who had prescribed it and how long I would have to take it for. Afterwards when I thought about the meeting I felt that this was a totally unreasonable questioning, a total invasion of my privacy and totally unrealistic behaviour from a manager.
Around about this time, my manager started to monitor what I would do on a daily basis and what my team colleague would do. He did this by running an activity report on the database. Another day he asked me into an ad hoc meeting, he said that the statistics of my day’s work were disappointing and that he was not happy with my performance. I again said that the workload was very heavy and that having to do other duties was taking away time that I needed to concentrate on the core duty of my workload. He said that my performance had to improve and that all the work was part of my workload and that it had to be done.
The very day after that meeting he asked me into another ad hoc meeting, he said that my team colleague’s performance was better than mine and that he was disappointed with my performance statistics. He said that I needed to work harder and keep on top of my workload.
When I was given the right to work from home, it was agreed that I would log in to the system 42 invoices. This was seen as a reasonable and accountable days work and this figure was agreed by the director of human resources and the senior accountant. One day when I met with my manager he asked me if I could do more than 42 invoices on the day I worked from home as he said that he felt that I could do more.
Ad hoc comments
Sometimes my manager would come to my desk and give me some work and say, “this is urgent, it must be done immediately”. Sometimes there was an hour in two hours work involved in doing that special task which he said was urgent. Sometime after I had finished the urgent piece of work, he would come to my desk again and ask “why isn’t this done” referring to another piece of work. I would reply saying that I had intended to do it earlier but he interrupted me with the urgent piece of work I was asked to do. He would then put the paperwork on the desk and tap on it with his finger saying “this is urgent too, it needs to be done, you should have done it before”.
My manager then started to send me what I can only describe as harassing emails, saying things like:-
“I have emailed you regarding the number of invoices to be printed, there are 35 at the moment”. A large volume of our invoices are now emailed to us, this is relatively new and is costing extra time printing them off. A considerable amount are also still posted, the number of invoices we receive is very high. When my manager sent this he knew how busy I was but still decided to send me such a blunt comment without any analysis of how large my workload was.
We have a specific generic email address to give to suppliers for them to email invoices however some suppliers would email them to my work email address. One time we were having issues with the generic email address and I could not access it, one day during that period my manager emailed this to me, “I just heard you informing a supplier that they should email invoices to your personal email inbox. All invoices are to be emailed to the generic shared email address”. I emailed him back reminding him that I did not have access to the generic address and that the invoices in question were for urgent payment.
Another time we were having problems with the database sending out electronic remittance advice notes and we had to send them manually as a separate piece of work, I had not had the time to send a particular remittance advice note and the supplier had phoned to request one, my manager again emailed me saying, “I had forwarded you the request to send a remittance advice to the supplier we paid yesterday, I also told you verbally to do so but it looks that you have not done it”, again this was said without any analysis of my workload and what other urgent things I had to do.
Another time when both myself and my team colleague were extremely busy, he sent us this email, “issues have arisen lately of invoices emailed to us which have not been printed and therefore not logged into the system to be paid. This result is unnecessary work for me having to prepare paperwork for additional payments. Additionally I have to spend time emailing suppliers apologising for the lateness of the payment. Can you both explain why you are not printing invoices? This is not acceptable. Emailed invoices should be printed, date stamped when received and processed by the third working day after receipt of invoice. This has been clearly mentioned to you both but you are doing what suits you.” Again this was said without any analysis of the workload and how difficult it was to keep on top of it.
Another time he emailed me this, “you have 43 emailed invoices awaiting printing, you should print emailed invoices on a daily basis and date stamp them accordingly”.
Another email said, “can you please print all invoices in the generic email accounts, (we have three generic email accounts because the charity I work for has three different companies) I want to see them empty.”
Another email simply said, “I would like to speak to you at 2pm in the meeting room, this is about your time-keeping.”
Another time I received this, “I verbally reminded you on Friday that you have 37 emails in one of the generic accounts to be printed, can you ensure that emailed invoices do not build up, I want them all printed on Monday.”
I have printed copies of all these emails from my manager and have kept copies so at least I have them to produce should I ever need to.
The organisation I work for was running a corporate project on engagement with staff and staff’s opinion of communication within the organisation and the organisation in general. All staff were welcome to attend the meetings which were not very often. I applied to attend and was welcomed to the first one. When a date for the second one was set, I applied to attend but was rejected, I was told that I was too busy and could not be released from the duties however other staff were allowed to attend. I very much felt that I was unwanted in the organisation even to the extent that I was not allowed to take part in corporate events.
I strongly believe that the issue of my HIV status has been an issue for management, I believe that if my disability were something other than HIV then I would have been treated more favourably.
By this time I was suffering with depression again and having problems sleeping at night time. I went to see my GP and told him what was happening to me in the workplace. He advised me to talk to human resources and to also talk to my trade union, Unison. He said that if I was not prepared to do this the only alternative was for me to go back on anti-depressant medication which would help me cope with the situation. As I did not want to take that medication again because of problems it has previously caused me, I followed my doctor’s advice and made a complaint to the director of Human Resources about how I was being treated. I also copied in the chief executive who in addition to their role as chief executive, sits on the Board of another disability organisation which supports and gives advice to organisations working with disabled people. The chief executive made no reply to my email even though I had mentioned the issue of bullying and the effect it was having on my health. The director of human resources did reply and recommended that the situation should be handled by the director of my department (finance) and that a meeting should be arranged. I also spoke with a Unison official. The meeting went ahead and consisted of my director, the human resources officer, myself and a representative from Unison who had been appointed as my case worker. The Unison person was very supportive towards me at the meeting and showed great knowledge in relation to such situations. He said that Unison would support me and that we were all looking for a way forward to help me to remain in employment and to work in a supported environment. My director who appeared at first to take a defensive attitude towards the manager who bullied me, backed down and said that he would continue to support me and that if I had future problems that I should speak directly to him or my manager’s line manager. He said that he would discuss the whole issue of my support with my manager.
Since then things have been somewhat better for me, my manager’s attitude towards me has changed and there have been no harassing meetings. I still have to work my 39 hours and the workload is still the same however my manager’s attitude is more supportive and the bullying has stopped. Looking back now I feel that what I was put through led to a deterioration in my mental health. I can see now that my mind was not in a safe place and that I had somewhat lost mental control.
I feel that a lot of what I have achieved has come from the support and advice I received from Unison. I have been a member of a trade union for a long time and I would strongly encourage everyone to join a union. There is strength in numbers and to me being a member of a union means having someone to support me to achieve what should be mine, unfortunately not every employer is honest or good and employees can benefit from the strength, experience and knowledge of a trade union. Now that I am feeling somewhat better and my mind in a safer place I would like to give back something to Unison in the form of getting involved with the Equalities Forum. I also want to share my experience and knowledge with other vulnerable people to help to empower them to deal with similar situations should they find themselves on the receiving end of such unacceptable practices and behavior.