Tamara’s short-term disability presented unique challenges — here’s how her employer enabled her to overcome them.
The Senior Consultant in Talent Acquisition at Scotiabank shares how she rose above the challenges when returning to work.
By Shelley White
Tamara Mungal’s life changed in the blink of an eye.
It was December 2018, and Tamara had recently been promoted into a new role as Senior Consultant, Talent Acquisition for Retail and Small Business Banking at Scotiabank. On what was otherwise an ordinary day, things changed when Tamara fainted. Though she doesn’t remember exactly what happened, “I must have hit a doorknob or something on the way down,” Tamara says.
Her brother found her bleeding and unconscious on the floor and took her to the hospital, where tests revealed she had a concussion. After getting the diagnosis, one of Tamara’s first concerns was her new job.
“I remember contacting my director and saying, ‘The doctor said I have a concussion, so maybe I can return to work next week.’ He replied, ‘Why don’t we wait and see what the doctor has to say,’” Tamara recalls. “I thought, give it a week, I should be fine. I had no idea I would have to go on short term disability for a total of eight months.”
Although each individual’s experience is different, concussions can cause a range of symptoms that can persist for a year or more. Tamara says she experienced dizziness, nausea and vomiting, as well as pounding migraine headaches, crippling fatigue, and brain fog.
“There was some memory loss in the beginning,” she adds. “I’d have conversations with people and I would find myself forgetting parts of the conversation. I was unable to drive long distances because that would exacerbate the nausea, dizziness and the headaches. I wasn’t able to watch screens or monitors for an extended period of time because I had sensitivity to light. I also had a loss of balance and coordination, difficulties concentrating, mood swings and sleep disturbances.”
Moreover, Tamara had a persistent feeling of guilt about missing work.
Even though I was aware my leave was medically justified, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
“This was a drastic change for me. I’d never been on a medical leave before,” she says. “Even though I was aware my leave was medically justified, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I was also partly afraid of how my peers might respond or interpret my absence since my concussion was not visible.”
Tamara says that another contributing factor to her guilt and fear stemmed from her upbringing. Born in Trinidad, Tamara moved to Canada with her family at the age of 10.
“Coming from an immigrant household, we’re very aware that many immigrants struggle to find employment, and it’s something not to take for granted. I was raised to feel like it was wrong to take too many sick days, because it could create a negative perception in the eyes of the employer,” she says.
Slowly, Tamara’s condition improved, with the help of physiotherapy, acupuncture, massage, counselling, mindfulness practices and meditation. Six months after her fall, Tamara got in touch with the Bank’s Workplace Accommodation (WA) team to discuss returning to work.
“I told them, ‘I’m ready to come back, I’ll just assess my progress and see how it goes,’” she says.
To ensure Tamara was cleared to return to work and would be properly accommodated in the office environment, the WA team asked for assessments from her physiotherapist and an occupational therapist to determine what her return to work should look like.
Tamara was cleared for a gradual return to work in August 2019, with regular check points to assess her progress. One of the assessment recommendations for Tamara was to work in a private room to avoid migraines that could be caused by too many lights in an open, shared workplace. This recommendation would also help to reduce distractions that could disrupt her concentration. In connection with this recommendation, she was advised to take frequent screen breaks throughout the day.
And though she understood these accommodations were for her benefit, they once again stirred up feelings of guilt and shame.
“My team, for the most part, sat together in an open workspace and I would be sitting alone in a private room. I sometimes felt like I needed to explain myself to avoid being perceived as antisocial because I was sitting alone,” she says. “I also felt like the accommodation was hindering my presence and visibility in the workplace.”
To help ensure she felt valued and included, Scotiabank provided opportunities for Tamara to participate in multiple special projects, such as delivering Inclusive Hiring Training across all regions and launching Talent Acquisition’s Onboarding Program.
“I really appreciated these opportunities, because it allowed me to have the exposure I felt I was missing. It allowed me to build relationships, form connections, and build a brand for myself,” she says.
Anna Zec, Senior Vice President, Global HR Services at Scotiabank says that Scotiabank is committed to providing accommodations for employees (and prospective employees) with disabilities, so that people are able to realize their full potential in the workplace. “Aligned with this policy, the Bank has a dedicated Workplace Accommodation (WA) team who works with employees on their accommodation needs,” she says. “They work together to help recognize barriers and determine solutions.”
Zec says that when employees like Tamara return to work from a leave of absence, the WA team may work with the employee, the employee’s healthcare team, management and other parties as needed to implement accommodations to facilitate a safe and sustainable return to work. And over the past few years, Scotiabank has expanded mental health benefits to build and align with an overall philosophy of “Total Wellbeing” — an effort that has been especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The global pandemic has created not only a physical health crisis, but many are now referring to the resulting mental health crisis as the silent second wave,” Zec says. “These measures were put into place to provide support to employees so they can bring their best self to work, and to life, every day. The Bank recognizes that everyone’s needs are different, even more so during these challenging times, and offers comprehensive and flexible programs that are available to employees when they need them.”
Like many on her team, Tamara currently works from home, and while she still gets migraines and must be careful to limit her screen time, Tamara says she is following the recommendations of her healthcare providers and her condition continues to improve as she utilizes the total wellbeing benefits offered by Scotiabank.
I’m able to relate to others in different ways — as a woman, as a woman of colour, as an immigrant, and as someone who had a short-term, non-visible disability.
The theme of this year’s 2020 International Day of Persons with Disabilities — which is observed on December 3rd each year — is “Not all Disabilities are Visible.” For Tamara, this day is about removing stigma and promoting understanding and support for the rights of persons with disabilities.
“Through this experience, there’s another layer to my intersectionality. I’m able to relate to others in different ways — as a woman, as a woman of colour, as an immigrant, and as someone who had a short-term, non-visible disability. We want to be a workplace of choice for the diverse communities we serve, so having these unique lenses really help not only strengthen me as an individual, but professionally I am able to have a multi-dimensional outlook as a member of a winning team.”
While the past two years have been challenging, Tamara says she has been surprised to recognize the positives in her experiences.
“I did have feelings of shame and guilt in the past, but looking back and reflecting on it, I see it differently. I see resilience. I see strength in my story”.