Simon’s story: Me, my colleagues, and M.E

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) affects an estimated 250,000 people in the UK, and around 17 million people worldwide, according to the charity Action For M.E.

Also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, M.E is a neurological illness that can be characterised by a number of symptoms, including muscle pains, severe fatigue, and behavioural changes. People with M.E find the disease can play havoc with their daily lives.

Simon Wigston, a colleague of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland, knows first hand how M.E can affect day-to-day living. Simon was diagnosed with M.E and depression in 2006, when he was working in an Ulster Bank branch. He’d experienced random emotional outbursts and severe bad moods, as well as extreme aches and pains caused by the illness. At one point, Simon was sleeping for up to 22 hours a day just to cope with the extreme fatigue.

After taking time off work because of his illness, Simon thought he’d never be able to go back to work, but thanks in part to the amazing support from his colleagues; he found a new role in the bank, and completely turned his life around. I spoke to him to find out more about his story, and how getting back to work has really changed his life for the better.

“At first, I didn’t know I was so unwell, I just felt like I had a bad cold or flu, and I was really rundown. When things worsened, I had to take time out from my job. It was my sister who first thought something more serious could be going on. She’d seen how much I enjoyed work, and she knew it was really rare for me to take time off”.

Simon was sent for tests which ended up spanning over 8 years. Before a diagnosis of M.E can be given, medical experts have to rule out all other diseases and conditions, meaning it can take years to get to the bottom of the illness.

Getting back to work

After taking time off to recover, Simon felt it was time to return to work in the branch where he started. Before he returned, Simon undertook therapy sessions provided by the bank, which opened him up to the idea that there were more methods of support available to him. Simon was referred to Ulster Bank's occupational therapist, to help him to deal with his condition in preparation for work.

“The therapist’s support was fantastic, and after months of me going through testing elsewhere, he was able to diagnose what was wrong with me after meeting me just a few times. A member of his family also had M.E, so he recognised my symptoms straight away. He was really helpful and proactive, giving me excellent coping advice, and some very useful reading materials; he really helped me throughout an incredibly tough time in my life”.

Once Simon had finally started to feel stable, he asked his manager about returning to work. He found that working in a busy branch whilst managing his illness was tough. Although controlled primarily by medication, there was still a danger of symptoms manifesting themselves, and Simon was worried this would impact his work. Although he was part of his old team, not having the same challenges as his colleagues was difficult for him. His team were really accommodating and understanding, but it left him feeling depressed, as he couldn’t contribute as much as everyone else.

Simon’s manager at the time could tell he was having trouble adjusting, and they sat down together to discuss what he could do to help. He wanted to see if he could support Simon in finding a role in which he’d be happier, where he’d be able to manage his work-life balance better. After doing his research on some available jobs in the bank, he presented them to Simon. After discussing which roles Simon felt he’d be best suited for together, they set up an interview.

New beginnings

Simon joined the Fees and Charges team in Belfast in a Business Analyst position. He was given tasks in his new job that matched his skillset, and he felt challenged and invigorated in his new office role. He was able to sink his teeth into exciting projects, and work with complicated information to solve problems for customers.

One of these projects in which Simon really saw his confidence change for the better, was the RBS-sponsored MoneySense programme. It aims to help young people in the UK and Ireland to get to a better financial future, teaching them about the importance of money management, and where to apply these skills in real life. Simon got involved with the first programme introduced in Northern Ireland.

“We went out to schools and spoke to students about finances and the importance of budgeting, the students completed an exercise where they were given a budget and challenged to create their own café. This was really rewarding and enjoyable on a personal and professional level. Through the work with the students, I developed to the point that the programme manager felt she could trust me to lead sessions in schools on my own. I was thrilled that my line manager had put me forward for this”.

Simon also works full time hours flexibly, enabling him to look after his daughter on Fridays whilst his wife works. Now he’s better placed to work a 4 day week, the extra time off helps him manage his condition.

“My managers through the years have all done a fantastic job of making sure I settled into my roles. Some have drawn from personal or family experiences of similar conditions, others have taken to internet research; but all without exception have really strived to understand the personal struggles it can create. Even though I’m not working with all of them anymore, we have become friends and I know that they’re always there if I need them”.

Simon finally started to feel like he could enjoy work again. He’s setting himself personal and work goals, and his managers have helped him realise he is more capable at work than he ever thought possible. Coming into work, he felt like he was able to keep focused on what he loved doing, rather than worrying constantly about his illness.

“I don’t think I could have ended up anywhere better. Thanks to the support my colleagues gave me and the opportunities I’ve been given, my depression has stayed away, my confidence has skyrocketed from what it was, I’m grateful to each and every one of them”.

Simon is now a Business Analyst working for Ulster Front Line Support in Belfast. He is planning to get into a new branch-based office soon to improve his work life-balance, and is looking forward to a bright future with his colleagues.

Want to learn more?

To find out more around M.E, visit the charity Action for M.E’s website.