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Few people navigate their careers without times when work is difficult, often because our professional and personal lives collide, says Professor Deborah Bowman, Deputy Principal (Institutional Affairs) and Professor of Bioethics, Clinical Ethics and Medical Law at St George’s.

Here, she shares her own experiences and explores how the St George’s community is opening up conversations around these issues.

Whether it is illness, bereavement, money pressures, divorce or other life events that come out of nowhere, pitching up at work and performing effectively can be difficult. As people live and therefore work longer, the question of how to manage work and support people during those difficult times matters in all organisations, especially those, like St George’s, University of London, where health and care are central to what we do.

Thinking about the ways in which the personal and the professional interact came to life for me when I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2017. As a senior member of staff with a packed diary and wide range of responsibilities, adapting to, and managing, the impact of the diagnosis and working during a long period of treatment was a transformative process during which I learned much. That learning has been wide-ranging, changing me fundamentally both personally and professionally. My thinking about myself and my subject – medical ethics – have been irrevocably altered. You can hear more about what those changes meant and continue to mean for me and my work in a programme – Patient Undone for BBC Radio 4.

For me, working during my illness and the 14 months or so of treatment was helpful, even vital. I am fortunate to love my job: it is varied and stimulating. I enjoy my academic work as much as my leadership roles and both allow for collaboration with many different organisations and people. I knew I wanted to keep working, but I could not know how chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy, endocrine treatment and being in a clinical trial would affect me. Nor could my colleagues. We embarked on the unknown together. The commitment we made was that we would be open and honest with each other. No one would assume I could, or could not, do something, but we would stay in touch about what was possible. I knew, for example, after my first cycle of chemotherapy, that my suppressed immune system would struggle to cope with the germy environment in the depths of winter, so I mostly worked at home. Colleagues generously travelled to meetings hosted at my kitchen table. When I dialled in for discussions, those in the room were thoughtful about how to involve me. People remembered my chemotherapy schedule and the better times for me in a cycle. These were small acts of kindness that were huge in their impact and will never be forgotten.

Of course, I am not the only member of the St George’s, University of London community who has encountered hard times. Last month, as part of our Thrive programme which focuses on staff wellbeing, we held an event at which the proverbial pin could have been heard slipping from an audience member’s fingers. Three members of staff – Meg Errington and Professors Hannah Cock and Anthony Albert – agreed to speak to me about their own experiences of working well when times were hard. Between us, we have experienced mental and physical illness, being a carer for a child with serious disabilities and bereavement. The honesty, openness and courage with which everyone approached the conversation was both moving and inspiring. The audience was receptive and supportive. Individual contributors were constructive in challenging our assumptions and perspectives, pointing out that factors such as status and role inevitably influence how easily one finds it to ‘work well when times are hard’.

The Thrive event was the start of a conversation at St George’s, University of London. It is not easy to have these discussions and sometimes organisations will, inevitably, hear perspectives that are critical. However, I am proud to work in a University that is willing to provide space and support, at both an individual and institutional level, for us to learn how to be good colleagues in times of pressure. Having cancer, making Patient Undone and hosting the Thrive event have all changed me.

The experiences have also been a test of the University CORE values – Commitment, Openness, Respect and Engagement. It is in times of difficulty that our ability to enact and live what we can easily accept in the abstract is tested. The commitment of the University to its community, our openness with each other, the respect for difference and our engagement in finding solutions were, and are, fundamental to working well when times are hard. Thank you to everyone who made it possible for me.

Find out more about Thrive here.