Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The "Sticky Employment Situation" Revealed

First of all, I’m going to stop apologising for the large gaps between posts.  As mentioned in my previous posts, I’m currently dealing with an issue with my previous employer, and I’ve largely been trying to keep schtum in hopes of reaching an amicable solution.  However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this is not going to be possible, so I now feel getting it off my chest is going to be the best thing for me.  I’m still going to try and be discrete about it and not name names, etc, but I really can’t see how I can keep blogging at the moment without getting this out in the open.

Where to start?  I briefly covered my employment situation in my first blog post, but to recap, I was made redundant from the job I had been in for several years in May 2011, due to company downsizing.  I’d already avoided the chop a few months earlier by moving from my local office, which was closing, to the company’s office up in London.  I started having anxiety problems with the London commute, so really, redundancy was the best thing that could happen to me at that point.  Luckily, one of my former colleagues who hadn’t made it through the cull when my local office was closed had found a lovely job with a small IFA firm, and they had a vacancy going which sounded perfect for me, so I pretty much walked straight into a new job.  I felt I fit in immediately, and couldn’t believe my luck.  However, a couple of months in, I started to have some health problems – constant stomach cramps, frequent vomiting, with a nice side of dry retching to keep me busy when I wasn’t vomiting.  I’d had similar problems before, which went away with the help of antacids and anti-emetics, although a cause was never found, so I went to the doctor and started the same treatment.  I tried to keep going in to work as much as I could, but as I was being sick so much, it was a hell of a task just to make it through the 40 minute drive to the office.  It got to the point that I was making less than half of my hours.  December came, and I was thoroughly gloomy by then.  My husband decided to take a little time out of work so he could come with me to one of my GPs appointments – I forget if I actually asked him to, or whether his near-infallible intuition told him I needed him there.  Either way, I ended up in floods of tears in the GP’s office, my doctor had a look through my notes and noticed my previous bouts of depression, and the dots were connected, and back onto anti-depressants I went.

It must have been less than a week later that I was called in for a meeting with my bosses.  Basically, they wanted to have a more formal meeting to discuss my health and my future, and suggested I may want a friend to accompany me.  I instantly knew what that was likely to mean, so once again, my husband was there to hold my hand for that meeting.  My boss was very apologetic, but he explained that they were basically in the position of a start up company and could not cope with continuing to pay me sick pay, and being a member down on their small admin team.  It was never explicitly said, but I was essentially offered to option of resigning or being dismissed.  I dimly remembered some old career advice someone had given me, that in that situation, it is always best to resign.  I wasn’t exactly in the best place mentally to try and put up much of a fight.  They had given me the option of staying on if I showed a marked improvement before they found a replacement for me, which was something, at least.  My husband, as always, was incredibly supportive, and agreed he would start working extra hours to try and keep our cash flow going.  We agreed that it probably was for the best that I took a couple of months to recover before looking for work again, in order to try and ensure I was in the best shape possible.  It took me about another week before I managed to tell them that I was also being treated for depression.  They were sympathetic, insistent that I still join them for their Christmas meal, etc, but the prospect of being unemployed within the next month had damaged my psyche more than I’d like to admit.  My condition worsened, so there really was no hope of being kept on.

Skip ahead a couple of weeks, and it got to the end of January, with no replacement having yet been found.  I got my payslip, and was a bit puzzled that I’d been paid for a whole month, despite only having worked about a week in January.  I gave the boss in charge of payroll a call to query it; as it would be going out to pay my bills in a few days time, I wanted to make sure that I was not left with money to pay back once I was without any income.  I was assured this was correct, as it was my pay for December, and I was paid in arrears.  I remembered having a conversation about this when I first started, and that I’d had to hold back some of my redundancy payment from my previous employment, so I was happy that this was the case.  I was going through a really low patch at that point, pretty much resigned to the fact I wouldn’t be going back to that job, so that’s about when I started blogging.  It helped me feel some sense of achievement and empowerment again.  I kept in touch by phone and email, but I never did get into the office again.

It got towards the end of February, by which time they had a replacement lined up, so I gave them a call to check if there was anything outstanding that needed to be dealt with before I officially left.  This is when they dropped the bombshell that I did, in fact, owe them money, although they weren’t yet in a position to tell me how much.  I essentially blacked out at this point through sheer panic – evidently, I managed to complete the phone call, with them agreeing to calculate the overpayment and email the figure to me.  I let my husband know.  He was absolutely furious, as this was exactly the situation I was trying to avoid by calling them in January, and we were in no position to pay the money back.  He took up the slack at this point, as I just fell to pieces, and he checked into employment law and came to the conclusion that, as I had made contact to query the payment and was assured it was correct, we had then spent the money in good faith, and had no liability to repay the money.  I went to visit the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau to back that up, and was referred to my local free Employment Rights advice service, run by a local law school.  This is the phone appointment I was referring to last time I posted.  I kept my former employer up to date with what was going on, letting them know I was seeking legal advice, and I let them know when my appointment was.  I requested a copy of my contract to double-check a couple of points, which they obligingly provided.  They had, however, started to claim that my recollection of the phone call at the end of January was incorrect, and that they had told me it was an overpayment and that I had agreed to work it off through February.  Now, this particularly upset me, as I’d already been off for three consecutive weeks at that point, and as I’ve said, I was resigned to the fact I was unlikely to be up to working again anytime soon.  I tried to keep my communication brief and civil from this point, as I didn’t want to say anything rash before I’d confirmed my legal position.

I just want to take a second to reiterate how difficult I’m finding this to write.  Trying to recall all of this and recount it coherently is wearing me down something chronic, and I’m painfully aware I’m not writing it as well as I would like, but I’m doing my best.  I just hope I will have some sort of feeling of catharsis once I’ve got it all out.  So.  It got to my phone appointment with the employment rights people last Wednesday evening.  They backed up my husband’s initial research, and gave me a rough wording for my response, stating that, as I had queried the payment, been assured it was OK, then used the money to pay bills in good faith, I had a defence of estoppel.  I had received my P45 in the meantime, which gave a date of termination of my employment as 6th January, which the adviser pointed out gave me an extra point of contention – I had handed in my notice on 12th December, but my contract stated I was entitled to 8 weeks’ notice, so this had clearly been incorrectly handled.  I sent my response off to my former employer, feeling quite secure in my position, confident this would be an end to the matter.  I started to feel like I might be able to leave this whole crappy chapter of my life behind me and start to move on.  That is, until I received their response yesterday morning – that non-repayment was unacceptable, that they awaited my agreement to a repayment schedule, and if it wasn’t forthcoming in the next two weeks they would have to start legal proceedings.  I’d managed to go the last few weeks without being sick once, but that had be crouched over the toilet bowl crying hysterically again.  My husband once again stepped up to the plate to compose a slightly more comprehensive and assertive reply, including screenshots of my reports of the conversations I ‘d had that I had texted to him, shocked at the sudden aggressive tone my previously amiable former employer had taken.

And that’s where I stand at the moment.  I’ve done my best not to fall to pieces again, and have thankfully been more angry than miserable over it – hopefully the anger will help me to focus on getting this resolved in my favour, as it should be.  I can’t help but feel that they are trying to take advantage of my weakened, vulnerable mental state at the moment to bully me into paying them back, even though the simple fact of the matter is that I can’t, and they can’t admit they simply made a mistake in that first phone call back in January.  The stupid thing is, in pursuing this, it is likely to cost them more in legal expenses than what they could possibly hope to reclaim from me.  I’m deliberately not checking my emails again until my husband is home, as I just don’t feel capable of dealing with it in my own at the moment.  Now, I know it’s generally my policy to not end my blog posts on a downer, but it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel right now.  I’m just looking forward to a nice meal with my parents tonight, much as I’m not looking forward to filling them in on the latest developments with my situation.  I’d like to thank all my readers, Twitter followers, and friends and family in general for your support of late, it has made this whole nasty cesspool of a situation a little easier to bear.  I’ve just got to try to stay strong and get through this!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Trapped in Limbo

First, a quick warning - I'm typing this on my phone for the first time, so it might get a little messy in places! I'm sure the inability to format things properly will drive me up the wall, but I thought I'd give it a go as I'm currently glued to my phone most of the time, rather than using my laptop. This also means returning to my more natural, stream of consciousness technique, rather than the more reviewed & edited way I've been trying to go, largely for the sake of coherence.

Over the last couple of days I've felt like my progress has stalled somewhat. To bring you up to speed quickly, I did indeed get my call back from my local employment rights people shortly after publishing my last post. As I'd expected, however, being a free, voluntary service they are swamped at the minute, so my initial appointment to actually speak to someone is not for a couple of weeks yet. Last week I was fine with that, mainly aided by the unexpected glorious sunshine. I tidied the lounge & cleaned the bathroom - both tasks I tend to view very much as chores, but with the windows open and some tunes to wail along to, I actually found myself enjoying it, and was delighted with how much better my house looked for it. I went out and enjoyed the sun, despite my hayfever kicking in with a bit of a vengeance. I had a cracking afternoon out with my friend Jamie, who I'd offered to drive over to our favourite drum shop, Drumwright, in Woodley, as he needed a few bits and bobs. I'll admit I was a little nervous beforehand, for various reasons; mainly that I was going to have to drive very close to my old office, and I was terrified of bumping into any of my former colleagues and of the squirmy conversation that would no doubt ensue. There's also the fact that I'm something of a lapsed percussionist myself, having not really played properly since college, which is something I feel quite guilty about, letting the previous years of practice, including a stint in my local youth orchestra, effectively go to waste. Then there was the more social side - I haven't really had any prolonged interaction with anyone other than my husband & my family in months, at least not without my husband/family being there to act as a "buffer" of sorts. They automatically pick up the slack in any conversation if it becomes clear I'm starting to struggle a bit. I suspect my husband even preps our friends before we see them as to what sort of mood I'm in and how best to handle me at that given time. I also know that Jamie is quite a keen reader of this blog, having had similar problems to mine over the years. He's probably one of the first people I felt comfortable discussing my mental health with, having spotted he was on the same meds as me in the early days. I was a little concerned we might end up bogged down in some depressing conversation, but we fortunately both seemed to be in upbeat mode. The iPod shuffle gods looked down on us favourably, pulling up a nice selection of cheery songs on the journey. It was great to be able to spend some time together and reminisce a bit, have a shared dribble over some of the stock in the drum shop, and a good laugh. I was knackered by the time I got home, but happy, as I felt we both got the bit of recharge time we needed.

This week, however, as the weather has turned somewhat gloomy again, I feel like I'm drifting aimlessly, trapped in limbo until I can close the door on the whole situation with my previous employer. I'd like to start trying to venture into the job market again, as it really is the only way I can see myself making a proper recovery. As I've explained before, I find work really is integral to my sense of self esteem. However, I don't think I will feel psychologically ready to take the plunge until that chapter of my life is over and done with. Put it this way; I don't want to put myself out there when I'm still feeling quite fragile, just to get hurt again. It's a tricky juggling act, deciding just how far I can push myself so as to regain some sense of normality, but trying not to push myself too far so that I stress myself out, and the whole exercise becomes counterproductive. I have a tendency to err toward the side of trying to do too much, and beating myself up about it when I don't live up to my own ridiculously high standards, so I've been trying to take things more slowly with my recovery this time, in the hope it will last a bit longer - to be honest, much as I know it's unlikely and that I will always have to deal with this to a certain degree, I do still live in hope of being "cured". A girl can dream, eh?

I have a bit of a blogging rule that I should never end on a downer. Even if the entire post ends up being a relentless tide of misery, I have to remind myself and anyone else out there that every cloud has a silver lining. So, with that in mind, I'd like to tell you about a little victory I had yesterday - for the first time in... ooh, about a year(?), I accompanied my husband to one of the local open mic/jam sessions he goes to. They tend to go on quite late, so while I was working I didn't like to go, as it would leave me tired for days. Since I've been at a loose end, so to speak, I've been trying to work up to going to one, as I do love the music and the company. The aspects that put me off we're the usual suspects; they're always in pubs, usually quite overcrowded, cramped ones. I feel incredibly vulnerable when my husband plays a set, as I get left alone without my protective buffer. Plus there's the lapsed musician's guilt I mentioned earlier. I kind of felt I had to prove I actually existed to some of the crowd, as they must have thought I was a figment of my husband's imagination, having never actually met me. My feminist side hates this, but I love to feel like an asset to my husband - to make a good impression on his behalf. I don't want people to think less of him because of me. I want people to think "wow! He must really be something, because look at that fantastic bird he's snaffled". Don't get me wrong, it's not just a looks thing, it's important to me that I express my intellectual side. He's always joked that I'm his "posh totty", but really, I always think I'm the one who married out of their league. Anyway, I'm going soppy & drifting from my point. I went with him to a jam night last night, and ended up staying later than we'd intended without even realising as we were both having fun. So I'm counting that as a win.