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The right attitude


Cite as: November 2011 85(11) LIJ, p.20

A Melbourne lawyer's struggle with a debilitating condition was made easier to fight due to the support of her employer.

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Our smallish firm of 10 lawyers does not have a formal disability action plan, but I have a story for you about how they’ve handled a “sort-of” disability well.

I have rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune disease which is episodic.

One day you can be fine and another day you might have trouble walking. Episodic diseases are often not classified as disabilities – although at times they are clearly disabling.

I came back to work two days a week this year after extending maternity leave from 12 months to 18 months after the birth of my second child. This was partly to deal with this illness, which started not long after the birth of my second child.

Knowing that my employers were prepared to be flexible and accommodating of my needs helped my reintroduction to the workforce.

Obviously, I have been quite up-front with them about my condition. I have also worked with them for about 10 years, so mutual trust plays a large role.

I have not had to make any adjustments to accessibility of the office or workspace as my symptoms are well managed at the moment.

My main point is that employers can really look after employees with health issues by being responsive to their needs. Often the employee will have a clear idea of what working arrangements will work best for them. That is, the employer will often need to be reactive rather than proactive.

Interestingly, in my experience, the same is required when employing parents (particularly women) with small children.

As it happens, my illness has improved a lot since I got back to work and I think a large factor has been my employers making it clear I should leave the office early if I need to, granting annual leave and leave without pay when I request, allowing me to change work days when I have to because of childcare arrangements and every now and then asking after my health.

My employers’ approach stems, I think, not from documented policies but from having the right attitude.

The way they treat me is merely an extension of the way they treat all their employees – with thoughtfulness and compassion.

Samantha Hills is a lawyer with Melbourne-based commercial law firm Holley Nethercote.


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