I am a Business and Coaching Psychologist accredited as an Occupational Psychometric Tester (Personality & Ability). I am currently doing a PhD in Professional Practice: Psychological Perspectives and working fulltime as an HR Manager/Clinical Manager for West Kent YMCA.
I am no expert on epilepsy but having training in the scientific study of the brain and human behaviour, as well as being so incredibly privileged to have worked with Torie Robinson who suffers from epilepsy, I’d like to share my experience and thoughts around epilepsy and the workplace.
The story begins when I first met Torie back in 2008. I was working for a Corporate in London and was recruiting for an additional member to my team. In walked Torie, she was great, she met all the criteria we were looking for in skill and expertise as well as a superb attitude to fit in with the rest of my team. I genuinely cannot remember exactly when Torie told me that she suffered from epilepsy. Whether she mentioned it at interview or after, but to be honest, it really did not matter at all. All I was concerned about was how we (myself, the team and the organization) could support her so that she could put her fantastic skills to good use. And do that she did!!
To me it was a no brainer……once she was within our employ, I took time to understand the challenges she felt she faced and what kind of support we could offer her. I remember she mentioned that if she felt a seizure coming on she would let me know and all I needed to do was to ensure that no one interfered and was kept away from her until the seizure was over. So we placed her desk near to a meeting room, that if she felt the need she could let me know and remove herself from the open plan office. We discussed how much she wanted the rest of the team to know. Fortunately, Torie’s communication skills are excellent so I felt that I did not have to do any research or reading up on epilepsy. I trusted that she would guide and advise me on what was best for her and on what she needed as support so that I could then find the best and most viable way to support her with as little disruption as possible.
I do clearly recall the day that Torie arrived at work with cuts to her face and a very badly bruised black eye. She looked like she had been beaten up and that ‘they’ had won! She informed me that she had had a seizure whilst waiting for the train and had fallen onto the tracks. But what I did note was that she was there, in the office, ready to work, reliable, professional, 100% committed and that it was her choice to be at work. It was important to me that she felt she could speak up and not feel pressured into working if she was not up to it. Even though Torie suffered from epilepsy it did not need to define her or make her any less of a valued member of my team, and I tried to treat her no differently than the rest of the team.
There are around 74 million people worldwide who are being affected by the common neurological condition epilepsy, and around 1% of the working population in the UK suffers from it. I understand that it varies from person to person. During a seizure, brain function can be temporarily disrupted…. and that is the key…..it is temporary! In general, it does not lead to brain damage. It does not make the individual mentally ill. It’s a seizure, the individual recovers and then continues to be a functional being, with feelings. It is not contagious and certainly in most cases does not impact cognitive ability to do a job and do it well.
What Can Be Done?
In my opinion, the answer here is very simple. Emotional Intelligence!
Further to this, Emotional intelligence links into a psychological concept called ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. This occurs when an untrue thought impacts a person’s behaviour in a way that the belief becomes a reality in the end. The more you tell a person that they are unable to function like others, the more you stigmatize them and the likelihood is the individual will start believing you. For example; when a manager verbalizes their low expectations of their employee who suffers from epilepsy or any form of ill health really, over time the employee will tend to meet that reality and perform more poorly in the workplace than they otherwise may have. Therefore, the expectations of the manager (or work colleagues), creates a definition of the situation that becomes acceptable to both individuals which in turn influences the behaviour of the employee. It is not all doom and gloom though, as with the use of Emotional Intelligence it can be swung around to create a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. This can be done if the manager, (or work colleagues) instil the belief in the individual that they are a valued and respected member of staff and that any form of illness does not define them. Thereby creating loyalty between both parties and instilling a sense of support rather than judgment.