Seven tips to help you survive serious illness when you’re a working mum

What do you do about your career if you fall seriously ill? Read seven tips to help you survive serious illness when you’re a working mum.

It’s tough enough juggling the dual responsibilities of work and motherhood. But how do you cope when you throw serious illness into the mix?

How do you fight back to recover your health, meet your financial responsibilities, maintain your career, and care for your family, at a time when you feel absolutely flattened and frightened?

And what happens if you’re self-employed, with no sick pay or financial security?

Seven tips to help you survive serious illness when you’re a working mum

To help you plan and cope with serious illness if you’re a working mum, Ruth Cornish, who herself has survived sepsis and cancer as a breadwinner, shares seven tips.

1) Keep working (if you can)

Often the response to a serious illness is take as long as you need off. And while this can work well for some people, it isn’t ideal for everyone.

With a willing employer or understanding clients, you can often work part time with illnesses such as cancer, depression and other chronic conditions. When I had cancer I was self employed and the sole working parent, and work was my salvation in many respects.

It also helped my fledgling business; up to that point I had worked alone. But to get through my treatment I began to pass work onto associates, leaving myself to just deal with my key clients. Working in this way grew my business and also made it more resilient.

Find out why working can help to meet our basic emotional needs

2) Ask your employer to make reasonable adjustments

If your illness is likely to be a long term impairment and a potential disability, you can ask for your employer to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate this.

This can be a short term or permanent. For example, your hours of work can be changed or your duties lightened, travel can be stopped or you can travel in later or earlier. Think about what would help you and ask your medical team and an independent HR professional for their ideas too.

3) Check your insurance cover

This is especially important if you are self employed and you are concerned about how you’d cope financially if you were ill for a period of time.

Your options include payment protection insurance (also known as short term income protection) and mortgage payment protection insurance, both of which are forms of accident, sickness and unemployment cover (ASU).

You can even take out a policy that is specific to your particular debt, so repayments will still be made if you lose your income through an accident, sickness or unemployment.

However, it’s important to remember that most ASU policies are time limited, which means they will stop after a certain period (this can be from a few months to a couple of years).

If you choose a less specific income protection policy, it will continue to pay you a monthly amount until you recover or the policy term ends.

Read how to budget for holiday and sick pay when you’re self-employed

4) If you become seriously ill on maternity leave, talk to your employer

If you fall ill while on maternity leave, your employer can be flexible but may want to stick to the rules. When I had sepsis my daughter was only eight weeks old. I rang my boss as I headed to intensive care and said “help”!

I was due to return to work in four months, but knew I would be unable to do this. My public sector employer arranged for me to have an assessment and allowed me to end my maternity leave and start on full sick pay for an additional two months before I returned. That was a discretionary decision which I was extremely grateful about.

Legally you are not entitled to ‘remuneration’ during maternity leave (OML and AML). Remuneration means your normal pay and includes contractual sick pay. If you wish to receive contractual sick pay, instead of your maternity pay, you will have to give eight weeks notice to end your maternity leave early and then follow your employer’s sickness procedures to receive contractual sick pay.

If you have returned to work early and you are off sick during the SMP/Maternity Allowance period, you will go back on to SMP/Maternity Allowance if you are absent from work for a week or more during your 39 week maternity pay period. If you normally receive contractual sick pay from your employer, your employer must top up the SMP/Maternity Allowance to your full pay.

Once you are well enough to work you will have to return to work as you cannot go back onto maternity leave and pay. If you or your partner are entitled to shared parental leave you may be able to take shared parental leave up to 52 weeks from the birth if you ended your maternity leave early and you now wish to take some more leave. You will need to give the correct notice in order to be able to take shared parental leave.

Check your entitlement to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) during maternity leave. If you normally get SSP when you are off sick, you cannot get SSP during the 39 week Statutory Maternity Pay/Maternity Allowance period as you will be paid SMP/MA for any week of absence during the maternity pay period.

5) Consider a career change

In my work as an HR professional, I have seen many situations where a serious illness or accident have required or facilitated a happy change of career.

Sometimes after such an event you, your body and indeed your family may all require a change. If so, seek help and advice about what the options are for you which may include a move inside your company or to retrain to do something.

Cancer in particular can spur people on to make big career decisions that they have been putting off, as can depression and anxiety. For some people illness can even be triggered by being in a toxic work environment. If this is you, get out and stay out. Life is far too short!

Love a career change but no idea what to do? Take our career audit!

6) Take care of your diet and fitness

When I left hospital after sepsis I was on crutches and couldn’t walk unaided. I had a 16 month old and a two month old that I was breastfeeding. I gained my strength slowly with a good diet and swimming but once I was back at work, it all slightly went out the window as I juggled everything again.

A few years later I was diagnosed with Lymphoma (a form of blood cancer). Up to that point I had been pretty lapse about staying fit as I’m fairly slim. I did attend kick boxing once a week but wasn’t physically strong and had no core strength. I had a reasonable diet but could have eaten more fruit and vegetables.

Going through chemotherapy and radiotherapy really drained my body’s reserves and once I was well I was determined to get fit and really booster my immune system.

Six years later, I am one of the fittest and strongest people I know. I attend Bootcamp three times a week, combat training and weight lifting when I can. I have recently celebrated my 51st birthday and can out train people half my age. I also know how good a healthy diet makes me feel. Particularly when I am working with my coaching clients.

It took me two bouts of serious life threatening illness to really appreciate the joy of good health and fitness and also that you can’t take it for granted. You have to actively seek it and make it part of your life and routine. It’s literally in your hands. If you can, don’t wait until you’ve been seriously ill to start making changes to your lifestyle.

7) Welcome the focus a serious illness brings to the whole of your life

Since I had cancer six years ago I have done a lot of fundraising for the wonderful cancer charities that helped me. I’ve presented in front of Jo Malone and Anne Robinson! I’ve inspired a room full of 300 women who have also laughed and cried with me when I’ve told them my story.

Serious illness really can bring a new focus and a welcome one; adversity makes you resilient. When I was told I had cancer I thought, “I will get through this”. I thought about when I had sepsis and they told me if I hadn’t called an ambulance I would have been dead by tea time. With my tiny daughter beside me, But I managed to call that early morning ambulance.

The ITU consultant said he had seem some things in his time but never a woman breastfeeding – I was also only one of two patients that were conscious. But I fought hard to survive and here I am today – stronger, happier and thriving. And so will you be too.

Ruth Cornish (FCIPD) is an independent HR consultant and runs Amelore, a Coaching and HR consultancy.

Photo by Naomi August