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Epilepsy and authenticity

Created:

24 March 2014

Daniel Pruce is the deputy ambassador at the British Embassy in Madrid.  Towards the end of his previous posting at the British Embassy in Bangkok he had two tonic-clonic seizures in the space of six months and was diagnosed with epilepsy. Here he writes about his experience of epilepsy and how it relates to his work.

I was recently diagnosed with epilepsy – following two tonic-clonic seizures towards the end of my last posting at the British Embassy in Bangkok. Alongside the practical challenges of finding a treatment that would manage the condition, I found it took, and is still taking, me time to work out how it affects me as a person, and how I do my job.

Authenticity is the key to successful diplomacy. The best leaders and managers in my organisation, the Foreign and Commonweath Office, are authentic. But my epilepsy brought me up against the question of authenticity in a way I had not expected. 

Epilepsy in the workplace

Anything to do with your health is a private matter. But when it affects how you work - your hours, your desk, your mood - you are faced with the prospect of giving up some of that privacy to be fair to your colleagues and to be true to yourself. 

I’ve found this a challenge. In the end I concluded that I could not do my job properly without being open about my circumstances. How could I be authentic if I did not tell those I worked with about something that is part of me, and which I cannot leave at home every morning? 

As well as forcing me to confront the importance of authenticity, my recent experience should help me in other ways. The need to actively manage my condition has sharpened my awareness of my own behaviour and its impact on others. The importance of properly planning my own work rhythm has, I think, made me more sensitive to signs of stress and overload in others. I think I better understand my own unconscious bias and spot it more readily around me.

For a long time I was trying to get back to what I was before I was diagnosed. I was trying to package up my epilepsy into a little wooden box, tucked away in a corner where it wouldn’t be noticed; and where I could forget about it. Actually what I needed to do was move forward as who I am.

Epilepsy has also prompted me to revisit some of my own attitudes to diversity in general, and to disability in particular. I’ve found myself challenging and changing some of my own assumptions about the perspectives of others. I’m sure that has developed me, personally and professionally.

Whether I turn any of this learning into actually being a better manager and leader is down to me and my performance. Having epilepsy hasn’t automatically made me better at my job. But it has given me some important insights into myself which I think will help me at work. And I have discovered a lot along the way: the policy framework, the responsibilities of employer and employee, the logic of Reasonable Adjustments, the importance of the Equalities Act.

I’ve been fortunate to work in an organisation that takes its welfare responsibilities seriously. It has given me excellent support as I have worked out my diagnosis and treatment. But the help I have received from the FCO also makes sense for the organisation. As John Amaechi (the first NBA player to come out as gay) said to the BBC earlier this year, an organisation that does not try to create an inclusive environment – where all can succeed – is actually simply stating that it does not want the best people.

The FCO is not a perfect employer. But I have tended to find such problems as I have encountered sit more with the attitudes of individuals rather than the systems in the organisation. Changing our culture as we are gradually doing – including through a new disabled staff association, called 'Enable' should help change the minds that need changing.

Epilepsy does not define me

For a long time I was trying to get back to what I was before I was diagnosed. I was trying to package up my epilepsy into a little wooden box, tucked away in a corner where it wouldn’t be noticed; and where I could forget about it. 

Actually what I needed to do was move forward as who I am. I’ve always been someone who had a career and who happened to have epilepsy too, I just didn’t know it. Clearly I’m better off with that knowledge and can live my professional and personal life accordingly, making the most of the positives alongside the other aspects. I’m conscious I have been lucky. Medication has helped keep me seizure-free for two years now. Many of the 65 million people who have epilepsy are not so fortunate. 

Epilepsy does not define me. But it is an unavoidable part of me. I can’t pretend – to myself or to others – it is not there. So I am determined to ensure I draw any benefits I can out of it. And one of those has already been my better understanding the importance of authenticity – in my work, in my private life, in everything. 

Sharing my experience is part of that process of being authentic. If reading this interests, or even helps, someone else that will be great. Writing it has certainly helped me.