4 Types of Career and Life Disruption and How to Deal with Them (Part 2 of 4)

Career and Life Disruption – Health

I started this series on career and life disruption with the post 4 Types of Career and Life Disruption and How to Handle (Part 1 of 4) several weeks ago. The series is based on the advice from Glenn Zweig who I interviewed in the podcast episode, How to Switch Industries from Executive Search Consultants Perspective. I reflected back on my career and life and how I had dealt with disruption. What I found was my life was full of disruption.

In this series, I will discuss 4 kinds of disruption and how I handled each. The 4 are as follows:

In this post, I want to not only discuss my own health disruptions but also talk about when you are pulled into others’ health issues.

I experienced two major health disruptions in my mid-30s and in my mid-40s. I will spend most of my time on the first disruption as it played directly into dealing with the near-collapse of the company I worked for at the time, IBM.

My second disruption was my bicycle accident in 2002 which I have written about extensively. Check out my post, A Near Fatal Bicycle Accident Was Actually a Mammoth Gift.

Health Disruption #1 – Ruptured L4/L5 Disc

I had been working for IBM for 14 years and had worked my way up the corporate ladder to one of the higher levels a technical person could reach. 1992 was a difficult year as I was having a lot of back problems. I was traveling both internationally and domestically leading a worldwide technical support training group.

Work was chaotic and I later found out I was the highest-rated person in the organization for my level.

I worked with one chiropractor, while I did not really like them I was seeing some improvements. I asked for recommendations for a chiropractor from my local network, and three people recommended the same person, Dr. Michele Gerard. That started a relationship that lasted until 2019 when we moved permanently to Mexico.

A few days before Christmas of 1992, I started getting pains in my leg that grew worse each day. My chiropractor sent me to get an MRI and the results were the L4/L5 disc had ruptured.

My chiropractor is not a medical doctor and could not prescribe pain medications. By the time News Years was approaching, I was in significant pain. I did have an appointment with a neurosurgeon the week after new years day. However, I could not get a doctor to see me and prescribe some pain medications to make me comfortable. On new years eve, my wife drove me to the county hospital emergency room where there was a slew of gunshot patients ahead of me to see a doctor.

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I eventually received some pain medications but it was a long wait.

The Neurosurgeon Said ‘Let’s Wait’

When I visited the neurosurgeon, he suggested that he give me a steroid injection and see if the back would heal on its own. That was the course of treatment that we took but … it meant I spent the next several months in bed. This proved to be one of the most difficult but transformative times of my life.

I was 36 years old, and I would go and go and go and then break. Most often it was back spasms that would get resolved through muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatory medications. I remember seeing pictures of me at the time and my posture was horrible. It was just a matter of time before I would break seriously.

This was it!

Part 3 of this series will be about Company/Industry disruption and I will discuss in detail my experience going through the near bankruptcy of IBM in 1993.  Starting in January it was pretty apparent that I would be out of work for a while. IBM had a very lenient medical time-off policy at the time. I was placed on short-term disability and technically, I was not supposed to do any work.

This was long before working from home became available, but I had a back door way of dialing into my workstation in the office. Remember dial-up modems? I was able to dial into a modem that was attached to a co-worker’s workstation and I was able to get to my machine.

I was able to access my email and I later was able to review online courses for a group in a different division. This helped me stay sane and kept me technically up to date.

At the same time, all hell had broken loose at work. My manager, who I really liked, was told to retire as she had 30 years with the company, even though she was only 49 years old at the time.

Using the Time Off Wisely

I was stuck in bed for over two months as my back healed. I was oblivious to the chaos that was occurring at work. I had started swimming in early 1992 as my back did not allow me to run. This turned out to be an outlet for my nervous energy. My wife would drive me to the health club with me laying on the floor of our van. I could get out and get into the pool. Several times a week I would go to the pool and swim as many laps as I could.

I am not a good swimmer so this was not enjoyable.

I had so many things taken away from me that I had a lot of time to think. I learned to slow down! So many of the things that I thought were important were not.

The rehabilitation was really difficult but I learned so much about myself. Healing was almost always 2 steps forward and one step back. Keeping my mental focus on the goal of returning not to how I had been but as a better me.

I kept my mind going by reviewing online courses and learning to do crossword puzzles.

I used my time wisely but I did not plan it that way. It kind of just happened. I look back on this time as one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.

My Return to Work

When I returned to work half time in early April, most of my team was intact but we had a new manager, who brought a few people with her.

IBM was going through some radical changes. It was shedding people, locations, and bureaucracy rapidly. My team was responsible for a worldwide mission and had to deal with a lot of cultural issues. My new manager was clueless about dealing with multi-national teams and multi-cultural issues.

In our first team meeting, it was obvious that I could not work for this new manager. I could give you some details but it’s not important. My gut instincts told me to get out. Prior to this health disruption, I would not have followed that gut instinct so easily.

I rapidly gave her some options on how she could help me move on and find a replacement for me. I gave her a graceful exit.

I moved to an Executive Briefing Center where rather than train technical support staff, I was giving detailed product disclosures to IBM’s top customers. It turned out to be one of the best jobs in my career.

What Did I Do Right?

I landed on my feet from a pretty debilitating injury. What did I do right?

I took care of myself and did not rush back to work. I was a changed person when I returned to work. My mind was clear. When I saw the ridiculous working situation, I was able to rationally and calmly offer a solution that got me out of there.

I stayed out long enough to get better but not too long. I strongly suspect if I was gone another month or two, I would have not have been able to negotiate my way nearly as easily to my next job.

I kept myself technically sharp. The act of figuring out how to gain to my workstation bypassing the usual security protocols proved to be very useful. I developed some key contacts in reviewing the online courses, i.e. I networked. Yes, networking while you are out is really key. It is easy to be forgotten.

What Can You Learn from This?

If you are put in a position where your health is compromised do the following:

  • Do what is right for YOU! This is not about taking the quickest way back to work.
  • Use the time for self-development. This is both personal and professional self-development. When you are healthy again are you a better person than before the disruption?
  • Network, network, and network some more. As we know our careers are dependent on others who can help us. When you are returning from a health disruption we need strong relationships to recover.

Other Kinds of Health Disruptions

Sometimes the health disruption is not ours but a spouse, a parent, or a child.

As we progressed through the pandemic many took time to care for someone else. It is very easy to throw yourself into this and forget about your career. It is very important to take time for you both personally and professionally to stay sharp and relevant. If you do not maintain your skills to stay relevant you will find returning difficult.

If you stay out of the game too long, maybe it is time to follow a dream and do something different. Maybe it is a time for reinvention.

What’s Next

I will next cover company/industry disruptions. I have been through several of these while working for IBM and Lucent. Both companies went through fundamental shifts in their industry i.e. both imploded due to flawed business strategies.

There were those who worked for these companies who made the move on their terms rather than the company’s terms. People who do this almost always come out ahead.

Marc Miller  

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