This is a story about sick leave...
On my very first week at my very first full-time proper job after college - working for British Aerospace - my friends talked me into pulling a sickie so that we could go to Alton Towers for the day. This was 1997 and I didn't yet have a mobile phone. I had to call my boss from a payphone in the car park of Alton Towers. You could hear people screaming with terror, as a rollercoaster thundered by, not far away from where I was making this tense phonecall.
I didn't make a habit of throwing a sickie. I moved to the town where I worked, so I could wake up late and walk to work. My boss was quite relaxed about me turning up late, as long as the work was getting done.
No sooner had I moved to Dorchester, then BAe decided to send me off to the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) on Portsdown Hill, near Portsmouth. A friend and colleague, who became my boss for this project, would come into my maisonette every morning and coax me out of bed. The early morning starts were agonising, especially if I had spent the weekend clubbing in London and was recovering from drug-fuelled all-night dancing. My body clock was sent haywire, but because I was only 18, I suppose I could just about cope.
I didn't have another sick day with BAe or DERA, or with the next company I moved to Winchester to work for. When I worked for Research Machines near Oxford, I even managed to get to work during the petrol crisis. I was allowed a day off when snow pretty much paralysed the country, and I went sledging in Haslemere, Surrey.
As an IT contractor by now, I realised I could use the time off between contracts to do cool stuff. I went on a week-long RYA Day Skipper course, to learn how to sail cruising yachts. I spent time with family in Devon, and did my interviews over the phone.
The dot com crash and 9/11 were rather unsettling events, so I decided to take a permanent job with HSBC, who are one of the more conservative banks. The interview process was exhaustive, testing my literacy, numeracy, reasoning and a bunch of other aptitude tests, and a grilling from various managers. "Why do you want a permanent job when you're earning good money contracting?" they asked. "Why do you want to work in banking, now that the bonuses aren't so good?" they puzzled.
HSBC Asset Management had a very familial feel to it. They had a policy of hiring a lot of former London Irish rugby players, and Surrey and Middlesex cricketers. If you were accepted, they would look after you. There was camaraderie. There was true team spirit. There was also copious amounts of drinking.
Somehow I got through some 4+ years at HSBC without pulling a fake sickie. One weekend, I ate far too many magic mushrooms, and then a team in Hong Kong phoned me up to ask why millions of pounds worth of equities settlement messages were stuck in a queue and were not being processed. The backs of my hands looked like playing cards, the walls were throbbing and swaying and everything was bathed in bright green light. I made my excuses and quickly phoned a trusted colleague, begging him to handle the support call for me, because I had accidentally gotten a bit too pissed. He laughed and I got away with it.
I had a persistent tickly cough that was annoying me. I had read somewhere that dextromethorphan - the cough suppressant - could make you have a psychedelic trip if you took enough, so I rang my boss, and said that my cough was so bad I couldn't come to work. I then downed 3 bottles of cough syrup, containing DXM. I got precisely zero thrills out of that particular mad caper.
Moving to JPMorgan, I had the perfect job. I used to work mornings and evenings, and go kitesurfing during the day. I say 'work' but what I really mean is that I used to turn the volume up really loud on my laptop, so if somebody sent me a message or an email, it would wake me up and I could see whether I needed to deal with it. JPMorgan were really cool with people working from home, especially if you were supporting their live systems, which was mainly my job at first.
I loved that job at JPMorgan, and never pulled any sickies. In fact, I would often work weekends and late nights. I was pissed a lot of the time, and there were plenty of Friday afternoons in the pub where we never went back to the office except to get our coats and laptops on our way home, but that was the culture. Work hard, play hard.
Switching to New Look - the high-street fast fashion clothing retailer - I had a long commute to Weymouth every day and they didn't really know what they wanted me to do. I spent a day working in a store, which was interesting. I spent a couple of days at their distribution centre, watching the boxes of clothes arrive from the sweatshops, and the stock being sent out to the stores. I spent some time trying to understand what the hell they wanted to do as a business, and what the hell I was supposed to do about enabling it. Eventually, I broke down and decided I couldn't face the commute. I couldn't face the job. I couldn't face anything.
Three days off... no problem... just fill in a self-certification of sickness absence form when you get back to the office.
Four or more days off... got to go to the doctor and get signed off: get a sick note.
It started with two weeks off. Then a couple more. Then I couldn't even face going to see the doctor any more.
I found out what happens if you just stop turning up for work, sending in your sick notes, answering your phone... anything. I just disappeared. The company gets scared that they're going to get taken to some tribunal and found guilty of making somebody so stressed and unwell that they can no longer work. The company is scared it's going to cost loads of money and be hard to get rid of you, so they offer you a cash payment to fuck off quietly, promising you a good reference if you just resign.
With my JPMorgan bonus, my payoff from New Look and my iPhone App income, I was having a pretty bloody good year financially, despite being laid low with depression for a couple of months. I would have continued to take time off, but my phone rang and it was an agent with a contract in Poole: about a 20 minute drive from my house. I interviewed and got the job. I was the highest paid contractor in the company, which was a joke because the company mainly did Microsoft work, and I'd specialised in completely different technology. I actually bumped into another contractor I knew - Bob - and I felt bad that I was earning more than he was, because he taught me so much and he was so much older and more experienced. Oh well, the arrogance of youth, eh?
Anyway, my boss was this cool French guy who liked the fact I could speak colloquial French quite well, so he used to send me over to their main office in Besançon very often. It was great in the winter, because I could go snowboarding in a little place just outside Geneva, before flying home. Me and a friend bought a boat and used to go wakeboarding during our lunch hour. I took my boss out on my boat. I took one of my colleagues out sea fishing. Life was pretty sweet. However, I got bored and started claiming I had illnesses like swine flu, so I could take some time off work. I took so much time off sick, that my boss asked if I really wanted the contract anymore. I admitted that I didn't, so we parted company amicably. I partly needed to get away from an annoying guy with a ginger beard who I had to work with, who irritated the shit out of me.
I then became a full-time electrician. At first, I let the customers choose when I would do the work, and filled my diary up with lots of random jobs. Then, I learned that I could block time out, to give myself a break whenever I wanted. I could tell customers that I was booked up in the mornings, so I didn't have to get up early. It should have been a dream job, which allowed me to go kitesurfing whenever I wanted, but by this stage my relationship was on the rocks and I was depressed and stressed as hell. I didn't do much of anything. I sold my share of the boat. I started to get out of my depth with the work that I was taking on.
After becoming too sick to work, I had a couple of months doing nothing, and then a tiny bit of holiday cover work for a friend turned into some iPhone development work, which then exploded into my idea for a startup: Roam Solutions. I decided to create a software house specialising in mobile apps for enterprise. I threw together a hunk of junk proof of concept and we exhibited at the Learning Technologies conference, at Olympia. Somehow, in the space of a couple of months, there was a working app on iPhone and Blackberry, a fancy website and some glossy brochures. A whole exhibition stand had to be designed and built, allowing people to play with the phones but not steal them. There was so much branding to do. So much design.
I wasn't actually that passionate about what Roam Solutions did, which turned out to be mostly digital agency work. Rebranding as mePublish, then Hubflow; rewriting all the software and creating an Android version - those were momentary distractions. Sales meetings were stressful. Supporting your software 24x7 with just you and a mate is stressful. Getting any money out of our customers was like getting blood out of a fucking stone.
We managed to get about £16k out of a couple of customers and raised another £10k by selling a few percent of the company's shares. In return, me and my mate got to go on a 13-week 'accelerator' program. The program was fantastic fun, but exhausting. By the end, I didn't turn up for a couple of days because I was 'sick'. The truth was, I was burnt out.
I should have swapped roles with my business partner. He made a great CEO in the end, when I stepped down. Anyway, I just disappeared for months, and my friend helped to tidy up the mess and calm the shareholders down. I was almost out of cash. I needed a job.
I went to work for a company that helped people who'd got into debt problems. Not one of those debt consolidation places - we actually wrote to the creditors and negotiated debt-write offs, freezing the interest and lower repayments. We helped people avoid bankruptcy or IVAs. It was a cool company, but they wanted me to be IT director without actually vesting me in or letting me sit on the board. I wrote them a brilliant IT roadmap. They ignored it. I had an argument with the CEO. I went off on a sickie. The private equity firm that owned the company liked me and sacked the CEO. But then I got paid off because I couldn't face going back. The following year, I was at a conference, and there was the bloody CEO of the parent company, who'd followed my fucking IT roadmap to the letter, telling the delegates how well it worked. I felt proud, vindicated, but also I know deep down that it would have taken a lot of hard work to implement, and I was no part of that, so I can't really claim credit.
After the London Olympics, I went back to JPMorgan. I was not a well man. I was limping along.
I managed to fix one of JPMorgan's major issues that was threatening to cause a major catastrophe - front page of the Financial Times stuff - and then I disappeared, never to be seen again. I got a phonecall from my boss, saying I'd received an extra bonus in recognition of the important work that I'd done. I felt like a fraud, thanking him for that, but knowing that I was so sick that I wouldn't be able to go back to work.
My GP signed me off for 5 weeks, and my first thought was literally this: "I can get fucked up on drugs for 4 weeks and have 1 week to recover enough to go back to work."
There was The Priory. There was the separation from my wife. There was the realisation that the rumours of my mental health and drug problems were well known to everybody I knew in Bournemouth and Poole. It's a small place. I used to ride a tiny folding bicycle invented by Sir Clive Sinclair, for the 10 minute trip to work, but yet this had not escaped the notice of all kinds of people whose path I crossed. I was becoming known as a rather odd and eccentric character - a nutty professor; a madman; a drunk; a junkie. It was time to go somewhere so big that those kind of labels couldn't follow me around: London.
I put my back out picking up my niece to put her on the swings at the playground, so I had a week working flat on my back at home, while I was working for Barclays. I started to slowly relapse into taking legal highs, and ended up taking another week off, where I rewrote the entire software system we were working on in a nonstop hackathon without sleep. It rather made a mockery of the whole project, as well as terrifying the hell out of the architects.
At HSBC, I had a full on meltdown after my first week, realising that it was impossible to work a demanding contract while living in a hostel. Somehow, I managed to get away with a week off work, thanks to my sister ringing my boss and making excuses for me. I did also have half a day off because I was so dreadfully hung over once. I wasn't going to bother at all, but my boss persistently phoned me. I reeked of booze, as I turned up at my desk at 2:30pm.
At a well-known leading consultancy, working for the world's biggest security firm, I didn't take any time off at all. I was a little late on a couple of occasions, and had to ask one of my team to run my morning meeting on my behalf, but I was mostly a reliable little worker bee. It helped that I had a whole week-long holiday: my first relaxing week-long break for over 3 years.
I was all set to start a new contract with a well known high-street bank, who I once worked for when I was 20 years old and Canary Wharf was mostly just a building site. However, I knackered my leg, which caused my foot to swell up and my kidneys to fail. I had to pull a sickie on the very first day. Thankfully, they've waited two weeks for me to get better; most of which I've spent on a high-dependency hospital ward, having dialysis. My leg is still fucked.
And so, I go back to work tomorrow, limping along with my robocop ankle brace and doped up on tramadol. I've got one reliable reference from the last couple of years. HSBC hate my guts. Most people at Barclays were shocked and appalled that my contract was terminated early, and my boss lost his job over his decision to fire me, but do you think I can get a good reference? Who knows.
I should have paid my rent 10 days ago. I just told the taxman that he's not getting any VAT off me for a whole quarter, and he fucking hates that. I have no idea what my bank balance is, but I'm sure that what little money I have is being frittered away at a frighteningly quick rate.
I could possibly delay a few weeks and get another contract. I could have stayed in hospital, letting them do their blood tests and fretting over my kidneys - which have proven resilient so many times before - and waiting patiently for them to finally take a look at my original complaint: my fucked foot/ankle/leg. It feels like I've torn a bunch of ligaments and muscle. It feels like my old injury has suffered major complications.
But, two weeks work gives me the best part of 3 months rent. If I can limp through the contract, I go from zero to hero. I've been so depressed about having to watch the pennies and not being able to treat my girlfriend to romantic dinners and whisk us off to exotic locations, or at least make plans to have fun. My plans have all been focussed on stopping the ship from sinking.
You might think I'm mad to take such a risk with my health, but mental health is part of it. Stress is part of it. Money and the need to not run out of it, is something that has to be considered. I don't trust myself: that I'm able to knuckle down and get on with the job. I did a good job of keeping my mouth shut in my last contract and it sorted me out financially a bit. This is my chance to continue that streak of improvement, if I can hold my shit together despite my health being a bit iffy. This is my chance to get in front. This is my chance to reduce all that stress and those worries and that anxiety and that depression about having to be super careful with money.
Anyway, let's see what happens tomorrow, eh? Let's see how sympathetic people are, about the fact that I've just been discharged from a high-dependency hospital ward, where I narrowly avoided chronic kidney failure, which would have meant having to have a kidney transplant and all the rest of that kind of shit. My leg is fucked, but I've found some contraption that allows me to get around without crutches. Still though, it looks like I broke my ankle or something. Surely, I've got to get cut a bit of slack, given what I've been through.
But, it doesn't work like that with IT contracting. Nobody owes me anything. The contract is between my company and another company. It's not an employment contract. It's a contract that says my company will provide consultancy services to their company - I could send anybody I think is qualified. I could hire somebody on minimum wage, train them, and send them to go do the job in my place, and I'd earn just as much money. However, the client doesn't really want somebody like me. They want me and they want me tomorrow at the latest, otherwise they'll just find somebody else. London's not short of talent. It was an extremely kind personal favour, that they waited this long for me to get better.
It's going to be horrible, starting work in pain and so exhausted from the nights in hospital where you're repeatedly disturbed by patients yelling out in pain, nurses coming to measure your blood pressure and take your temperature, and phlebotomists coming to take blood samples. They wake you up at 7am for the crappy breakfast of dry bread and marmalade. It's going to be a struggle to stay awake at my desk, especially with all the pain medication I'm taking.
So, it might all go to shit anyway, but at least I tried. I could have taken my sweet time over everything, and let the hospital string me along, but eventually, I can't cope with the frustration anymore: the lack of control, when your destiny is in the hands of somebody who doesn't even know what they're looking at. Somebody who's hiring because there's a knowledge gap in their organisation: they're hiring somebody who knows what they don't know, so how can they know that the person they're hiring knows what they know? So many stupid interviews, where the interviewer just wants to talk about the lame crap that they have just about managed to memorise. So tedious. In the end, intolerable.
I'm falling asleep and it's 5 o'clock and I didn't wake up until after 10:30am. Tomorrow's going to be fucking awful. But, think of the money. Just think of the money.