Returning to work after a life-changing event

4 months ago ​Martin Sockett

Rainbow Mountain Background

​Martin Sockett, Director of Finance at Grafton Merchanting GB talks candidly about his personal experience of returning to work after life changing injuries as the result of a car accident.

At the time of the accident Martin was successfully building his career within the Audit Practice at PwC. His partner, Rachael, also worked there and they shared a network of friends who regularly socialised. Having moved to Nottingham after graduating from the sporty Loughborough University it is no surprise that Martin was a regular in both his five-a-side football and cricket teams, and listed walking and skiing amongst his hobbies. He and Rachael had just moved into their first house together and were planning a future that could see them working overseas as they shared a passion for travel.

The road traffic accident that Martin was involved with happened only 200 meters from his home, in which the petrol tank caught alight and the vehicle was consumed by flames. He suffered 3rd degree burns to 31% of his body, with extensive burns to head, back, hands and right arm resulting in facial disfigurement and loss of his right ear. The severity of the injuries received saw Martin and his family being faced with the possibility that he would not survive the accident. He had severe full thickness burns to a significant portion of his upper body and head which would need to be treated by numerous skin grafts and plastic surgery. This alongside the long term wearing of compression garments and silicone face mask to help with maintaining the scar tissue.

Thankfully Martin did survive. He spent the first 6 months in the Burns Ward in Nottingham City Hospital, the initial two months of which were in a high dependency unit where he spent time in an induced coma. Subsequent hospital stays for further skin graft operations and scar tissue releases followed alongside 12 months of attending a specialist occupational therapy centre, which not only assisted with him using his hands and fingers again but helped with the social aspect of having to interact with other patients and staff.

Martin spent approximately 20 months in full time recovery, not only away from work but also from the life he had known before. He has kindly agreed to share his thoughts and feelings about his injuries, his recovery and his subsequent return to work.

We have heard about the devastating physical injuries you suffered, could you tell us how you felt emotionally after the accident?

My initial emotional reactions centred around the fact that I couldn’t look at my facial injuries for example I had to have the mirrors covered in the hospital bathrooms. I worried that the changes to my physical appearance would result in my partner leaving me and left me with a real fear of being alone unable to find someone that would accept me for the way I looked now. I was reclusive after the accident, I would avoid people other than close friends who came to visit me. My confidence in social situations had disappeared so I made excuses not to go out to where there were crowds of people such as the PwC summer and Christmas balls. At times this made things worse as I felt I was letting my partner down as she was having to attend these alone or with friends.

Even today I am more selective about where I go, partly because of how I feel but also because I still wear a hat in public which can create issues as some places do not allow hats to be worn like pubs, restaurants and even golf clubhouses. To this day I still experience heightened emotions in everyday circumstances whether this be in reaction to watching a film to reading a news article and this is something that has stayed with me.

When you started to consider returning to work what were your main concerns?

My first concerns was being accepted because of the way I looked, which was considerably different than prior to the accident; would people still want to work with me or socialise with me?

I was aware of my lack of confidence and had concerns around whether I could effectively do my job as it involved working with numerous clients in different locations with different audit teams.

I’d worry that if I couldn’t do that job, would I be able to get another one? Would I suffer at interviews because of the way I looked? In hindsight some of these concerns were unfounded but at the time I was always worrying about the worst case scenario.

I also had concerns about the work itself, how much had things changed over the course of the last two years and would I be behind with my knowledge? Would I need additional training to catch-up?

The nature of the structure in my early career at PwC created peer groups and one of my concerns was the fact that I had lost two years, my peer group had moved on without me. Instead of mentoring/training the intake two years after mine, I would now be part of that intake and they would be my peer group.

What support were you offered to make the transition back to work from your employer and medical professionals?

During my hospital stay and when recovering at home I was appointed a clinical psychiatrist who would visit the hospital, and then subsequently my home, to discuss how I was feeling and encourage me to go outside. Other than visits to the hospital or occupational therapy centre I had not been outside in public for more than a year. Once at home I had weekly visits from the clinical psychiatrist and this would eventually build up to going for walks outside, then going to a small shop, building up to going to the local supermarket and then eventually going to a local coffee shop with the intention of building up confidence.

Whilst I was in hospital the nurses suggested that they could bring in previous patients that had suffered life-changing injuries to discuss their experiences. I met a couple of previous patients which was very helpful in demonstrating that it would get better, that the negative thoughts were normal but assured me in most cases the reality was different.

PwC, my employers, were very supportive both to me and my partner which made a huge difference and had a massive positive impact on how I coped with returning to work. Before I returned both friends who were also colleagues and senior members of the practice, some of whom I had little or no interaction with previously, would visit me occasionally at hospital and then subsequently at home.

On returning I was able to build up my hours when returning to work. I was placed in a couple of teams where I knew the team leader as a friend which helped. Also clients were informed of my situation prior to working at their sites which all helped to reduce my anxiety and fears when first going out to new clients.

This is a life changing event, what affect did it have on your confidence? If affected what have you done to counter any loss in confidence?

Historically I had quite an extroverted personality and often assumed the ‘team leader role’. I was football and cricket captain at high school and subsequently sport secretary for my hall of residence at Loughborough University for two years. I was always one of the people. The results of the accident had a detrimental effect on my confidence, I would no longer go out to places where there are crowds or put myself in situations where I didn’t feel I had an element of control, I wouldn’t contribute to conversations in social gatherings.

As time went by I had to force myself into some of the situations I was avoiding, not just for my own sanity but also because I felt I was holding my partner back. By attending more social gatherings I got more comfortable with myself and I think my natural behaviours started to come back. I don’t think I will ever get back to the confidence levels prior to the accident but I don’t feel I need to either.

You speak very positively about your experiences. How do you deal positively with people both in public and at work?

Work and public are quite different situations, with work you expect a degree of professionalism but in public there is little you can do to control your surroundings or what people you will come across, both positive and negative.

Initially at work I think people found it hard to look me in the eye when having a conversation and some steered clear of the topic of my accident and resultant scars. In general I would turn the conversation to the way I looked or if I felt comfortable I wouldn’t upset the other person, I would make jokes about my appearance to try and break the ice and put them at ease, which in turn put me at ease.

In public quite often you will notice people/strangers staring at you, I think it is human nature for people to be curious about things that are different. My initial reaction in the early days was to look away but this grew into making eye contact and smiling at them almost if to say “I know you are staring at me”. Interestingly I would generally get two opposing reactions, some will look away (almost embarrassed) but occasionally some will initiate conversation and ask about what happened to me which I am more than happy to explain.

Encountering children still offers challenges. Quite often I see them staring or even pointing and saying “look at that man’s face” and often it is the parents’ reaction that determines the outcome. Some will tell their children off and pull them away but others will apologise which can more often than not result in me explaining to the kids (and parents) what happened or them asking if they can touch my scars to satisfy their curiosity because it is something different. Quite often this approach breaks down barriers and helps to educate children that everyone is different and that those differences are not a bad thing.

I do experience negative comments, most of the time I brush them off but it does remind you that you do look different. This can have a negative impact on your mood or state of mind for a brief period before I just move on again.

What advice would you give to someone experiencing the same challenges?

  • No matter how bad you picture things in your mind, it is never as bad in reality. This can be difficult to do but was true for me.

  • Talk about how you are feeling or what happened, don’t bottle it up. Most people want to help but do not know how to for fear of upsetting you. By talking things through, at times I felt was helping them as well as me.

  • Communicate with your employer and tell them what you need. They are not experts in “you” so they also need guidance.

  • Expect setbacks and times when circumstances are going to be challenging. Whilst I didn’t specifically plan ahead how I would react to different scenarios I had thought about “what if” scenarios or talked about the concerns I had with my partner.

What advice would you give to employers to support ‘returners’ in your circumstances?

I think PwC got it spot on with their approach. I was lucky that I worked for such a big company and with lots of different people which allowed this to happen. My advice to others would be:

  • Keep in touch. The home visits by various different people helped me because it meant that a lot of people had seen my change in appearance and would be expecting it when I first returned to work. Knowing I wouldn’t be walking into an office on my first day back seeing everyone for the first time was a huge relief. In a way it also got the rumour mill going as the visitors would tell other colleagues so they also knew what to expect – preparing them as well as me.

  • Build up hours and exposure gradually. This was a big help to me as was working in teams where I knew the people prior to my accident as this helped put me at ease.

  • Ultimately, every employer and work environment is different so the most important advice would be to ensure the lines of communication were open in both directions. Work to understand what works best for the individual because I expect different people will be feeling various emotions and require different support.

  • As both Rachael and I worked for the same company it was important also that she was given support and time which PwC dealt with very well. I would suggest to any employers to consider the family of those returning to work and offer them support too.

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To read our accompanying Insight: Inclusive Workforce, Return to Work please click here. If you would like more information on future D&I events pleased contact Angharad Kenward, Angharad.Kenward@investigo.co.uk