This week, we’re bringing you an interview with Astriid, an organisation that supports those with long term health conditions in gaining employment.
Our patient survey from 2016 found that 50% of those with Lyme were unable to work at all, and around 18% were able to work part time. We know that many sufferers lose their jobs through illness, but do want to return to employment for financial and personal reasons.
Deborah Bircham, Astriid’s Candidate Coordinator and a Lyme sufferer herself, answers our questions about their service and how it can support those with late stage Lyme in finding work that suits their capabilities, skills and interests.
Who Astriid is and what they aim to do?
Astriid is a charity that helps support people with long-term health conditions and their carers to find employment that they can do alongside their condition. They also advocate for more inclusive employment practices.
The charity recognises that many people with chronic illness are talented, skilled people with professional qualifications and years of experience, and yet there are barriers which prevent them from accessing work.
They aim to end the inequality and worked to make workplaces more inclusive towards people with chronic illness. Astriid’s motto is that the value of work is far more than the wages paid.
Who is your service for? What type of people/conditions do you support?
Astriid supports anyone who considers themselves to have a long-term health condition which impacts on their ability to work. We also support people who are carers for those with long-term health conditions.
Astriid recognises that for many people with chronic health conditions, and carers, normal channels for finding employment don’t always work very well, and conventional expectations for working practices can be a barrier.
We are currently supporting people with a wide range of health problems, ranging from cancer and MS, to ME/CFS, PoTS, Fibromyalgia, autism, chronic pain, mental health conditions, stroke survivors, Lyme disease, and many others.
We are keen to reach out to people within the chronic health community and make them aware that this support is for everyone. There is no criteria about any specific health condition or diagnosis, all are welcome here!
How do Astriid support someone who is chronically ill in getting back to work?
When someone signs up with Astriid through our website, the first step is a welcome email to arrange a chat on the phone to find out about their needs and aspirations, and what the specific barriers to working are for that person.
We spend time getting to know our candidates, their experience, skills, what they are passionate about, and what type of employment would best fit their needs. This process means that we are able to get a really good personal picture for each of our candidates and a clear sense of how best to support them individually.
We have a number of different pathway options which we can offer, including career coaches who help candidates to conduct a skills audit to pinpoint their key skills and identify other fields of work that they could consider. We provide a volunteering placement programme where candidates can gain skills and confidence in a new area of work by volunteering for different colleagues within Astriid, if that’s something they’re interested in.
We also work in partnership with other organisations to offer a range of training opportunities to our candidates, which range from ‘back to work’ training to vocational qualifications in a range of fields.
Being chronically ill and out of work is also a real blow to someone’s confidence and self-esteem, so we also offer confidence-building coaching and practical things, like interview practice, to help candidates become more confident.
We also offer advice about how to write or polish your CV, and how to use technology, such as LinkedIn.
We can offer help with bespoke job searches and possible contacts with relevant corporations and employers.
Our services cover a range of options and everyone’s pathway is different – we aim to tailor our service to each candidate’s needs.
We recognise that it can sometimes be a giant leap for someone who is unwell to commit to a job, and that it can seem like a very daunting prospect. We aim to support our candidates through this journey, breaking it down into small steps that people can take at a pace that suits them.
We look for appropriate ways to help them get from where they are now to where they need to be to be, in a position to work safely with their illness.
“At Astriid we believe that no one should have to give up on their dreams because of chronic illness, and that everyone should have the right to earn a living doing something worthwhile with their individual talents, and we aim to help our candidates achieve this.“
For anyone feeling nervous about getting in touch, I can reassure them that everything is done at the candidates’ own pace.
Do you provide ongoing support for people once placed in a job?
We care very much about the on-going well being of our candidates at Astriid and this is an area we are currently working to expand.
We already offer support to candidates who are currently working but who need to change their jobs; perhaps because it is exacerbating their health or they are not being offered the support or reasonable adjustments they need and they want some support to look for the right job for them.
We are also developing on-going support for our candidates once they are in posts, and also for their employers, to help ensure that the job is a success for both parties. This is something that Astriid is committed to implementing, so that support is there to iron out any issues and help candidates who find employment to stay in employment.
You also have a wellness programme – tell us more about this and the role it plays.
Wellbeing is a key component for us at Astriid. In order to be able to find work and remain working, people with chronic illness need to look after their mental, physical and emotional health.
From the perspective of our candidates, becoming chronically ill, losing a job through illness and being out of work can all be a very emotional and traumatic experiences. Some of our candidates have experienced very unsupportive or toxic work environments and others traumatic interview experiences, many have lost their confidence or are generally feeling a bit anxious or apprehensive about returning to the world of work.
We offer a Wellness For Working programme which includes courses on confidence-building, working safely with chronic illness, and also 1:1 and group personal development coaching to help candidates adjust to their circumstances and to support them with any worries that they have around working.
We aim to help them to feel confident about themselves and their value in the workplace. We are currently putting together a range of Wellbeing courses to teach self-care techniques, such as pain management and mindfulness, which can help our candidates to keep a healthy work-life balance and protect their health. We are developing new sessions and training courses within this programme all the time.
You yourself came across Astriid because you suffer from Lyme disease and wanted to get back into work – can you share a little about your journey with us?
Prior to developing Lyme Disease, I had a successful career as a museum curator and then working in engagement and events for a national charity.
Like many, I lost my job when I became ill with Lyme Disease, and my symptoms were initially so severe I began to think I would never be able to work again.
Like so many people in that situation, I went through a grieving process for the person that I had once been.
I had defined myself by my career and I loved my work so much, it took me some time to come to terms with being unemployed and finding a new way of defining myself now that I no longer had a role.
I felt embarrassed to be unemployed, and I found it hard to talk about that with my friends and former colleagues.
Working plays such a big part in our self-esteem and our sense of identity, and I definitely struggled to come to terms with the fact that I no longer had a purpose in life. At the end of 2020 I heard Miranda Hart talking about Astriid on her lockdown blog, so I looked them up and registered on their website. I wasn’t sure initially if they were the right sort of place for me and whether they would be able to help me find a job, but I thought it was worth trying. Trish, our lovely Head of Candidate Coordination contacted me and it really made me reconnect with my working self and remember who I used to be.
Initially, Astriid asked me to volunteer with them, and then in January this year they offered me a role as a Candidate Coordinator, and I absolutely jumped at the chance! Now I try to do the same for my candidates as Trish did for me. I love working for Astriid and supporting my candidates on their individual journeys back towards working, and I find it enormously rewarding to be involved in something so important and to provide this very much-needed service.
Astriid also offer peer networking – how does this work, and what are the benefits?
Within Astriid we realise that the chronic illness journey can sometimes be an isolating and lonely experience, and so we are working on building a network of peer support and opportunities for our candidates to meet each other, share experiences and build networks with other people who understand.
We are also developing a range of social activities, such as crafts or gentle exercise classes which can be done online to help our candidates feel supported and part of a community. This is all part of the step-by-step journey that we can do with candidates who might not yet feel quite ready for work, but who would like to begin that process.
What else would Astriid like to do in future? Do you have any further initiatives planned?
Astriid is growing very fast at the moment, and we have lots of exciting ideas that we would like to develop for our candidates!
The Wellness for Working programme is in its early stages and we have lots of ambitions for that to grow and to offer more support to our candidates. We also have plans for more partnership working to generate more training opportunities, volunteering and work placements for our candidates.
We recognise that training is a big area of need for our candidates and we have aspirations to develop our training offer further. We would like to see job creation and work placement schemes in the future. We are working hard to campaign for changes in working practices and we are very hopeful for the future of employment for people with chronic illness. And, of course, we are always fundraising so that we can continue to grow and offer support to more and more candidates.
Finding out more and getting in touch with Astriid
Find out more and get in touch with Astriid on their website: https://astriid.org/
We are also in talks with them to hold an online event so that our followers can hear directly from the Astriid team and ask any questions they might have.