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December's Founder Of The Month

- Sarah Berthon: Making The Workplace Open To All

Panicking as I realise I’ve hit my coffee quota at just 12 noon, I pour my final strong black of the day and return to my desk. I’m about to meet Sarah over Zoom and learn all about her business and I want to be focused.

I’m not sure if it’s because it’s Friday or because it’s cold out or maybe my body is fighting a virus, but I am fatigued today. You know that state that feels as if you’re being pulled out of a river, half-drowned and body aching and all you want to do is collapse but you have to stay awake? Of course you know it. We all have that feeling from time to time. Imagine having it most of the time.

Imagine having to tread water all day just to keep your head up. To have every little thing you do be so physically and emotionally exhausting and then also feel the guilt of those things you haven’t had the strength to do, on top of that. Imagine walking into environments all day long that assault your senses and intensify your struggle. Imagine wondering if this is how everybody feels but it’s just you who cannot cope with it. Imagine thinking yourself ungrateful because you’ve built the life you wanted and you’re not enjoying it. That’s what life got like for Sarah in her mid-twenties.

A born high-flyer, Sarah completed her degree and became a Management Consultant in her 20s. Flying all over the world meeting with various important people, she was living the life she’d always dreamed of. Then she began to feel fatigued and it didn’t pass. Her muscles began to ache all the time. She’d get dizzy standing up and office lighting caused her debilitating migraines. Soon she was forced to take time off work regularly and when she was able to go in she’d collapse, exhausted, as soon as she got home. Something was clearly very wrong and yet it took years for her to get a diagnosis.

Being told she had M.E finally gave a name to what she’d been going through. Now she could stop blaming herself and feeling as if she just wasn’t capable of coping with her responsibilities. Unfortunately, as with all chronic conditions, it didn’t provide a fix and made it no easier to continue with the lifestyle she’d chosen for herself years before.

Deflated, Sarah accepted redundancy, took a job with less responsibility and dedicated herself to looking after her children and herself. Further diagnosis gave Sarah more clarity and through nutrition, new routines and exercise she found ways to manage her condition. A go-getter like Sarah though can never be fulfilled in just a job, she needed a career again. A purpose. So she did what an increasing amount of women who become mothers do, she started a business. Putting together all-natural skincare products and then moving into developing all-natural kits for children to enjoy making bath bombs, lip balms and other cosmetic items themselves, Sarah moved into hosting making parties for kids. Working when she was able and resting when needed, gave far better balance to Sarah’s life and enabled her to manage her M.E. However, joining groups for self-employed women and mothers highlighted the same difference she’d felt in employment.

“There are so many inspiring women in those groups and they do an amazing job lifting each other up,” she told me. “Still, advice on those groups tends to be ‘push harder, work more, promote yourself everywhere’. That’s great for a lot of people but for me, that way of working puts my health at risk. So again I felt as if my condition was forcing me to break the rules we're expected to follow to reach success.”

After having left a career that she loved then discovered balance in self-employment, Sarah found herself in another environment that was not designed for her. Or for anyone with chronic health conditions. Strange, considering that a third of the working population in England have at least one long term condition and it’s on the rise. Many of these sufferers, like Sarah, have chosen to go self-employed and so Sarah decided to create a forum where they could connect and support one another.

Excel Against The Odds began as a Facebook group aimed at self-employed individuals with chronic health conditions. It’s now a growing business. A consultancy, run by Sarah, reaching out to assist self-employed people to manage their business and their health in ways that work for them. She also consults with employers and employees in creating better working environments for those with chronic health conditions.

“Of course there are some employers who just don’t get it. Long term health conditions mean ongoing support so it’s challenging sometimes to get people on board when it’s not a quick fix. However, there are plenty of employers who want to help but they don’t know what to do. Often, the employee doesn’t have the answers either. That’s where I come in. “

Not only is it compassionate for businesses to create flexible environments for those who need them, but it’s also good business sense. The UK economy will buckle if those with long term conditions are not able to function well in the workplace. Or if they are forced out. Apart from the fact that the workforce would lose an incredible amount of talent, we could also be instigating a mental health crisis by removing the sense of purpose a full and rewarding career can provide to so many people.

Excel Against The Odds is one of those rare ideas born from personal experience. Sarah uses what she has learned from her own experience to help others like her. Beyond that, this organisation is a driving force in the UK business world becoming more compassionate and people-focused. Embracing ways of working that really work. Not just for the few but for everybody.

That’s why I’m proud to announce Sarah our Female Entrepreneur For December!

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