It’s personal: Why company support matters during and after a leave of absence
When Michelle Rhodes was diagnosed with cancer just four days before her return from maternity leave, the firm’s supportive culture made all the difference.
By Jean McClellan, National People and Organization Leader, PwC Canada
Returning to work after maternity leave can be difficult. In addition to the anxiety of leaving your baby in someone else’s care and worrying how you’ll perform back at work, there’s the added stress of what your colleagues will think if you miss a meeting because you have to run to daycare to pick up your child or stay at home because your child is sick. “You feel like you have something to prove,” recalls Michelle Rhodes, a director in PwC Canada’s People and Organization practice. “I probably came in with guns blazing, even though I promised myself I would take it slow.”
But in Michelle’s case, there was an added complication: four days before she was due back from her 14-month maternity leave, she found out she had thyroid cancer. The cancer was discovered through a biopsy of a large growth on her thyroid that had “ballooned,” as she describes it, during her pregnancy. Unfortunately, unlike previous biopsies, this one was malignant.
Thyroid cancer isn’t life-threatening on its own, but the type she had was a rare form that has a 30% chance of spreading to the lungs or bones. Fortunately, in her case, it didn’t. She quickly realized she’d have to take several more leaves of absence for treatment. Following the biopsy, Michelle had a second surgery to remove the rest of the growth, followed by radiation to make sure the tumour was completely eradicated. She now goes for checkups every few months.
But amid all of the uncertainty at the time, the one thing Michelle did know was that PwC Canada would be supportive.
Being supportive means going beyond an organization’s programs and policies, Michelle explains. “When you’re in a sensitive place emotionally, and you’re feeling insecure on your return in terms of where you fit into the firm, even a little unsupportive comment from a colleague or partner could derail everything. But that never occurred.”
She returned to work for just over a month before leaving for treatment for three weeks. She then came back for a similar period of time before taking another leave. “I was on three different projects with three different partners, and they each made me feel comfortable about sharing what I was going through. They all said, ‘Health first. Do what you have to do. We will get the project done, don’t worry.’”
First cohort of Women in Leadership
Before this point in her life, Michelle, who grew up in Toronto, Montreal and Boston, joined PwC Canada in 2009, initially working in Learning and Development before moving to the Consulting practice as a senior associate in People and Organization. Soon after being promoted to manager, she was chosen to be part of the first cohort of the firm’s Women in Leadership internal career development program.
“My involvement in Women in Leadership was kind of a microcosm of my experience overall at PwC,” she says. The experience transformed how she views her journey at the firm. “Instead of looking at your career as a series of consecutive steps, you look at your career as a whole. How do you hone your leadership skills, your personal resilience and mentoring?”
Both through this program and at the firm in general, Michelle feels PwC Canada has been proactive in identifying opportunities for her, whether by encouraging her to lead meetings with the C-suite when she was a senior associate or persuading her to replace a director on an engagement when she was a new manager.
“For a female, it’s a fantastic place to work,” she laughs, referring to the professional development opportunities and the support structure and flexibility available to people who have recently returned from maternity leave.
For instance, the only daycare she found closes at 5 pm. This means that several days a week, Michelle leaves the office at 4 pm to pick up her 21-month-old son. She puts in the remainder of her hours either early in the morning or later in the evening. “If I didn’t have that flexibility, I couldn’t be here today.”
Making the adjustment
Dealing with her illness has also been an adjustment. She has learned a lot about herself, both personally and professionally. “I was almost blissfully ignorant about how my illness would impact my life,” Michelle recalls. “I didn’t fully anticipate the physical health implications of some of my treatments, the fact that I wouldn’t be able to work really long days sometimes or that some days I wouldn’t feel well.”
She was putting a lot of undue pressure on herself. To deal with that, she had to learn to ask for help and delegate rather than work in a silo. After a few months back from her last medical leave, she found herself needing support again. “I’d taken on far too much, as we tend to do. I thought I could power through like I previously had when I was overcapacity, but my home priorities, mental and physical health eventually caught up with me.” Michelle put her hand up and her partners and teammates wrapped their arms around her to provide support. “I will always remember their key message: that they were here for me and that my health and ability to remain with the firm long-term came first, before any client deadlines.”
Today, Michelle is grateful for the way the partners routinely check in on her just to make sure she is OK. “I’m going to carry on that practice, because you don’t know if people are OK. They may be all smiles, but underneath they’re crumbling, mentally or physically, because of things happening in their personal lives.”
Michelle’s advice to others coming back from personal leave? “Look at your return from leave as a long journey,” she advises. “Don’t expect everything to fall into place right away. Be patient with yourself.”
For her part, she has realized that despite some life complications, her career isn’t stagnating. How she works may look a bit different than before, but she can still grow and progress with the firm.