How cancer led to a mission to tackle taboo topics in the workplace

Nicky Palamarczuk's latest event focused on the topic of returning to work after a miscarriage.

Palamarczuk: returned to work 'softer but stronger'
Palamarczuk: returned to work 'softer but stronger'

Miscarriage, cancer, addiction, divorce, menopause – it’s unlikely that these subjects are topics regularly discussed in the office. And certainly not from people who are experiencing them.

After having to take six months off work to beat breast cancer in 2017, Nicky Palamarczuk, head of social and influence at VCCP Kin, realised that no-one talked about what it would be like to go back to work after the illness. During that time, and with the support of VCCP, she came up with the idea to host a series of events tackling taboo topics, known as Back to Work After. 

The first event took place earlier this year and focused on returning to work after cancer. The second in the series occurred last week and aimed to start a discussion about something more common than many realise – that one in four pregnancies end in a miscarriage.

Campaign talked to Palamarczuk about how she is encouraging more people to open up about these difficult topics.

How did you come up with the idea?

The idea came to me while I was off because of the way work responded to me. They said that I could come back to work in whatever capacity I wanted, which I wasn‘t expecting.

It made me think that this is happening to people and if we don’t talk about it and we don’t say what we need, then how do we make work a better place and a place that people want to come back to?

What was it like when you came back to work?

I felt empowered because I had just beaten cancer, but I also came back with a lot more empathy. I came back softer but stronger. I realised that I love my job, but I wanted to make it on my terms. That still means late nights, especially when you’re pitching – and since I’ve come back I’ve done an all-nighter – but it also means not feeling guilty when I need to leave at 5pm to pick up my daughter.

Do flexible working hours help?

Flexible working, mindfulness, yoga classes and all the things companies are offering are all good, but they only scratch the surface, because there are these taboo topics that no-one is really talking about, like miscarriage, divorce, addiction, the death of a child or parent. All of those things people are going to absolutely go through, yet most companies either don’t have policies or don’t talk about them openly.

Are there still times that you need support?

I’m super-open about it because you don’t just get over it; healing is not a linear process. I had a wobble last week, because I have to have a six-monthly treatment. It’s not painful; it’s something that stops me getting osteoporosis, but it just takes me back.

So there are weeks or days where you feel that you can’t cope and work. Knowing that you need a bit more support and to just let you disappear on your own for a couple of hours is really important.

How did the idea for the events develop?

I approached Michael Sugden (chief executive of VCCP) and Julian Douglas (vice-chairman of the agency) who wanted to support me for the first one. Not only did they sponsor me, they also helped me get the word out and told me it was a great idea. Again, it was another good sign that this was the kind of place I wanted to work in, because they were recognising that we need to talk about topics like these more widely.

When it came to my second event, I put it out on LinkedIn and the response was incredible. That’s how I found my speakers – through word of mouth.

How do you come up with the ideas?

Anything that is taboo. It’s why I haven’t done "back to work after having a baby" – there’s a lot about it at the moment. I feel like that’s just the start, that’s the basics we should be doing. People have horrific divorces, they will have terrible battles with addiction or mental breakdowns – and those are the things that we need to get into as well.

What happens at the events?

It isn’t just them getting on stage and recounting their tragedy. It’s very much what I learned about myself, who I am in and out of work, what I need to be and what I need to ask for at work in order to be happy and successful.

I interview all of my speakers beforehand to understand their story and then I put together what I think is a compelling narrative and that usually forms the basis of their talks.

How can people continue the conversation in the office?

Be open and talk about it, because you’ll be really surprised by the response you get from people on a personal level. Also, talk about what you need and don’t be fearful of that, because your workplace wants you to be the best possible you. If you’re struggling because you can’t tell them something, you can’t be the best possible you.

What advice do you have for employers?

For topics that are taboo, having some kind of policy in place that acknowledges this is something that needs addressing in the correct way and knowing you have some rights around it.

The fact that there is no miscarriage policy within a lot of agencies is something that people may not have considered. It’s not that they’re being remiss, it’s because no-one talks about it and because of the taboo around the first trimester.

What have you learned from the process of putting the events on?

I always felt a bit like a failure because I didn’t have a side hustle. This passion project has happened because I had cancer – that’s the only reason and I’m loving it. I’m just going to go with it as long as the journey takes me.

For more information on the event series, visit http://backtoworkafter.co.uk.

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