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The importance of warmth

DWP's Cheryl Stevens

I think it’s really important to talk about the things that sometimes hold women back. So I’m going to talk to you about my experience of returning to work, as a woman in a senior role, after a long period of time off. How I coped is something that I’ve been asked about a lot, so in the run-up to International Women’s Day I wanted to share my story.

A little bit about me

I’ve been a civil servant for 20 years. As head of Identity & Trust in DWP, I still pinch myself that I am doing the job that I am. I started out at the most junior grade and never imagined I would be a Deputy Director one day.

I’m lucky to have a brilliant, boisterous son Adam and lovely husband James, who could be less annoying, but we can’t have it all!

Three years ago I had a good life: a good job, a nice family - not all perfect - but nothing really to complain about, I’m pretty much a glass half full person anyway.

When everything changed

It was after a particularly gruelling wrestling match with my son that my chest started to hurt. I did what we all do, I prodded and poked and made it sore until a good friend insisted that I went to the doctor.

She saved my life. I found out that at the ripe age of just 36 I had breast cancer. It was stage 3, aggressive and had spread into my pectoral muscle. I was told I would have a fight on my hands.

I knew in that moment that I would fight, this was not going to take me away from my 5-year-old son, or a husband that couldn’t figure out that butter and Nutella on the same sandwich was just gross!

So fight I did, hard. I endured almost a year of the most gruelling treatment and hospital stays. I had side effects galore, including a tango tan. I kid you not I went orange, it’s called a chemo tan and is quite common. My brother referred to me as the oompa loompa, but I’m glad we were able to laugh about it.

Finally, the treatment finished and the signs were good, I had beaten it. So the day came that I could go back to work, yay!

Back to work

My son was scared of the wig I had to cover my hair loss with, so I wore a bandana. So when I returned to work most people didn’t recognise me, or if they did were lovely, as you couldn’t mistake what had happened to me.

All good I thought, I can do this. But, I’d been back a few months, and despite having loads of support I felt strange, like I didn’t quite belong. I couldn’t put my finger on it but everything seemed just a bit beyond my grasp, almost fuzzy. I was embarrassed because I still had chemo fog, even the simplest word would escape me. I felt like my tongue was too big for my mouth and that I made no sense. So as a coping mechanism I found myself only speaking when absolutely necessary. I ignored the niggle that I didn’t belong. I told myself that I had beaten cancer and to pull myself together.

Then something happened. It was sudden and unexpected; I was on a call with a colleague when it did. I was literally winded with the realisation that I was frightened, really truly frightened that my life as I knew it, professionally, had gone. I sobbed, a massive rib hurting, gut wrenching sob, I felt like I’d been punched in the chest.

You see, with a long term absence your home life evolves with you. So that was fine, I didn’t have those feelings at home. But work was different, things had moved on without me and I wasn’t properly prepared. I struggled to understand how it had moved on, where I fit in now and honestly, whether I ever would again.

The chap I was on the phone to was a friend thankfully. He was brilliant and, although I couldn’t speak, he told me that I was ok and to breathe. He really helped to calm me down and I’m so grateful to him for his empathy and compassion.

Not coping and coping

That was the turning point for me and in answer to the question, how did I cope? Not very well at all - in the beginning. But once I had calmed down, I started to do what I do best: plan.

It all happened just as I moved to a new director, so I told him how I was feeling. I explained that I didn’t want wrapping in cotton wool but that I was struggling to find my place again. And together we found my place, I told him about my chemo-fog and we agreed some simple coping techniques, for example when he asked for group input he wouldn’t come to me first, giving me time to think. He was also very good at empathy, telling me that he understood how hard it was for me and that helped me to accept that finding it tough was not a weakness.

I also told my team how I was feeling; that was hard for me because I was worried that they’d think they’d been short-changed having a flake for a senior leader. But do you know what? Nobody did and they made adjustments for me without making a fuss.

I also got myself back involved in my network, particularly Women in Digital. I recall feeling a bit overwhelmed at the first Digital event I went to, looking like a pirate in my bandana, in front of so many people! I nearly left, but then one of the nicest women I know, Joanne Rewcastle, bowled over and asked me if I needed a hug. I so needed that hug. It said more than a thousand words, it said, ‘I’ve got you, you’re ok,’ and thanks to her, I was. I still get a hug at every event.

So where am I now?

Cherly with a group of women at the Women in Digital event
At the Women in Digital event

Two years after returning to work, I’m back in a place where I feel comfortable and confident, I’ve still got a great family and it’s expanded to include Dexter our dog. I’ve got a wonderful network at work, I speak up when I’m struggling, without fear of having to be seen as strong all the time. And I head for the warm people to recalibrate. I’ve grown as a senior leader by asking for help and not pretending everything is ok if it’s not. I’ve found my place again and make a concerted effort to help others find theirs. It’s something I didn’t really consider before, but I do now.

Although my reason for being absent was illness many people who have also had a long term absence, for various reasons, have sought me out for advice. It’s this:

  • Acknowledge to yourself that it is hard. It’s not impossible though and you will get through it. As difficult as you may find it, speak up about how you are feeling. In DWP we’re lucky to have a network of Mental Health First Aiders who can help.
  • Networks are really important, surround yourself with people that you can talk to and that can help you when you have a wobble - which you will - and that’s ok. Be kind to yourself.
  • Find a good hugger - if that’s your thing. If it’s not find the thing that gives you energy and a boost when you need it most, whatever that may be.
  • Remember, you are awesome, whatever the reason that led to your absence, you are back and that takes courage.

For everyone else: be that warm person, be the person that acknowledges that it's hard. If someone seeks you out, feel blessed that they trust you, so step off of the treadmill and take the time to listen.

We’re currently recruiting diverse, talented people. Visit our careers site to see our latest vacancies.

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  1. Comment by Shelley Bryen posted on

    Brilliant. Courageous. Inspirational.

    • Replies to Shelley Bryen>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Thank you, my food of the world, funny and awesome friend.

  2. Comment by Naomi Bell posted on

    Thank you for sharing this beautifully written personal experience of what I’m sure is one of the hardest journeys anyone should ever have to endure. For the record you did fit, you do fit and you always will fit. This makes you an even stronger leader in my eyes. You continue to inspire me me through your calm, collective and supportive style and I only hope that I will continue to have the pleasure of working with you and be part of a growing network of authentic leaders as we together transform DWP, from one hugger to another ?

    • Replies to Naomi Bell>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Thanks Naomi, you've always been a constant and consistent friend since I joined DWP. Thank you too.

  3. Comment by chris ashley posted on

    this hit me right in the feels.

    thanks for sharing your story and wisdom, Cheryl.

    • Replies to chris ashley>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Thanks Chris, 'right in the feels' will def be part of my vocabulary now.

  4. Comment by Mrs Ozma Iqbal posted on

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey, you are a real inspiration to us all. In order to bring about the cultural change in DWP, that we are all working so hard to achieve, story telling is such a key part. Thank you.

    Now, I am not much of a hugger ( I think this stems from my cultural background as we are not big on public displays of affection!) But I'll give you a big hug ? next time I see you.

    Thank you again for sharing your story.

    • Replies to Mrs Ozma Iqbal>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Ozma, you are personally bringing about that cultural change, I could feel how much you wanted to make a difference and you are doing. I will take the hug though!

  5. Comment by Karyn Bright posted on

    I was already inspired by interviewing you this week at Women in IDentity -but I didn't realise any of this and feel, as you suggest, that inside all of the most amazing women is someone 'normal' who just needs a hug and a kind word from time to time. Thank you.

    • Replies to Karyn Bright>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Thanks Karyn, nights like that really matter, reminds me why I love it so much and you were fab!

  6. Comment by Diane Joyce posted on

    With your passion and energy I would never have known about your victory in beating cancer and returning to be a leader. Thanks so much for having the courage to share and inspire all of us

    • Replies to Diane Joyce>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Thanks Diane, being a part of Women in Identity has been massive in getting me back and you are an ace hugger

  7. Comment by Debbie Urquhartcannon posted on

    Although I’ve now left the civil service, your story really resonated with me Cheryl. A couple of years back I came back from an operation but had an underlying condition that hadn’t yet been identified- and I struggled. The feelings you describe I had. I did have a great colleague who is a wonderful hugger! At times I really felt alone, vulnerable and out of my depth. As a senior manager I felt very exposed. I absolutely agree with you, no matter what grade a person is they need an understanding and empathetic line manager to support them back and I’m so glad you found this. I wish you good health, a continued stellar career and many happy years with your lovely family.

    • Replies to Debbie Urquhartcannon>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Thanks Debbie, I'm so glad I wrote it now, there are more people than I thought that have experienced similar. It is the exposure I think. I hope you are well, take care

  8. Comment by Angie Smith posted on

    Hi Cheryl

    Wow this was shared by a friend on Facebook and although we haven't worked together for a long time I couldn't put this down and had to share with my family. I'm retired now but experienced the same feelings a long time ago Shelagh Brown was and still is my huggy friend. You are a true inspiration xx

    • Replies to Angie Smith>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Hi Angie! Thank you, means a lot to me. Huggy friends are keepers for sure!

  9. Comment by Andrea Heslop posted on

    An amazing, honest and true blog - thanks for sharing Cheryl

    • Replies to Andrea Heslop>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Thanks Andrea, and for being part of it all with Digital Voices, all pieces of the recovering of who I am now.

  10. Comment by Ruth Smith posted on

    Cheryl you inspired me 10 years ago to believe in are one of the most inspirational ladies I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. Your story tells of guts, determination and sheer strength of character and putting your trust in others ....which at times takes bags of courage. Thanks for sharing and wowing us all again with your sheer brilliance...take care lovely lady. Ruth

    • Replies to Ruth Smith>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Thanks Ruth, I remember our conversations and if they helped I'm really glad, you too are a lovely lady. Hope you are ok and all is well for you. Take care. I cant believe that was 10 years ago either but it was!

  11. Comment by Nina Rogers posted on

    Really awesome read Cheryl. A few have shared on facebook so your fame is becoming wide spread. Very inspiring. Sending a Nina hug ?

    • Replies to Nina Rogers>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Love a Nina hug. You were awesome to James whilst I was ill (and all the time actually) and I appreciated that a lot.

  12. Comment by Maggie posted on

    Cheryl I remember the whole period of time that you describe - this must have been painful for you to write, and I think it’s an incredible piece, so thank you.

    I had absolutely no idea that you felt that way, when you came back to work, and if I’d had the slightest clue I’d have tried to help.

    I guess I, and pretty much everyone else, were just so relieved and happy that you’d come through that we didn’t see what was happening beneath the surface.

    I am so, so sorry that you had to go through any of this, and it’s fantastic to see you so
    well and happy now.

    Big hug next time I see you!

    Much love xxx

  13. Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

    Hi Maggie, that's the thing isnt it, you feel like you need to hide it but actually you don't at all. The team were brilliant and made things slow much easier (the newsletters of what you were all up to when I was off was really appreciated and very funny). I'm in a good place Maggie, will come and see you when I'm in KC.

  14. Comment by Sarah Kennett posted on

    Inspiring - thank you . All the very best for the future

    • Replies to Sarah Kennett>

      Comment by Cheryl Stevens posted on

      Thanks Sarah, you too.