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DEAR GRADUATE


Career pointers learned from life’s curveballs

By Rebecca Atkinson, Manager, Accenture, Canada

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Wisdom I wish I had when I first entered the work world.

Raising a child with special needs is not easy. Learning your husband has Huntington’s disease is an almost crushing blow. That is the reality of our family.

My daughter has Asperger’s (an autism spectrum disorder), and after a very long journey, just over a year ago my husband was diagnosed with this cruel and horrible neurological disease, which has no cure and no way to stop its progression.

Through it all, I have had support from friends and family and, above all, my coworkers and managers. I started with Accenture in 2008 as a contractor in corporate functions—the marketing team. I was about to get married, owned my first house, and life was great. Being a contractor was a perfect fit.

Fast-forward to 2012, I had moved and had a beautiful baby girl who was now 3. I was still a contractor with Accenture, which had no issue with me moving across the country because everything I did was done from home. However, I didn’t have the easy baby. Those first few years were hard, nowhere near as hard as what was to come, but I had no idea.

Through it all, my manager was always very supportive, not caring when I got my work done as long as it got done. This support gave me the flexibility to attend many doctor appointments. My daughter had severe acid reflux, and although she was bright and hit most of her milestones, she was easily overstimulated, had epic meltdowns, and showed signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder-like behavior and extreme anxiety.

Meredith and I, all dressed up for Halloween

Meredith and I, all dressed up for Halloween

At 3 ½ years of age, she was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Life became about therapy and school readiness because, in her current state, school would not have been possible. Again, through it all, I had an extremely supportive team of colleagues and a manager who always encouraged me to put “family first.” The flexibility my employer showed me during this time made me even more loyal to them despite being “just a contractor.”

After six years with one team, I moved roles, still within the corporate marketing team as a contractor, but life had settled some, and I was ready to accept a new work challenge. I was very fortunate within a year of my new role to be approached about converting from a contractor to a full-time employee. Little did I know this change was going to become the best thing that could have happened to me.

During this time, my husband had been undergoing some tests and seeing different doctors to try to understand some changes he had been having, both cognitively and with depression. I had not shared this development with anyone at work as we didn’t know anything. Our journey to diagnosis was long as his mother had been adopted and had passed away of cancer, so little family history was known.

We finally got to the point where tests were numerous and the options were becoming scarier and scarier. It was at this point that I shared the news with my manager, who was just as supportive as my previous manager. She knew at that point that completing my conversion to a full-time employee as fast as HR processes would allow would be the best thing to support me.

The day we got my husband’s diagnosis, I’m pretty sure I must have bawled like a baby to my manager. She offered me whatever I needed: time off (despite being in the middle of one of our biggest projects), flexibility, an ear to listen, and, of course, my job offer.

My husband was a writer, and we were young, so we did not purchase extra health insurance options. It was costly being self-employed, and our daughter had expensive needs, many of which were not covered anyway since they were “pre-existing conditions.” It is my biggest regret.

My daughter, Meredith, and husband, Mark, building Lego together

My daughter, Meredith, and husband, Mark, building Lego together

Once I became a full-time employee, many worries drifted away. We now had coverage for both my daughter and husband’s medical costs. My daughter is still on reflux medication and probably will be for her whole life. We also made the choice to medicate for her anxiety. Because of numerous allergies, her medication has to be compounded and is very expensive. With my husband’s diagnosis and declines in his cognitive thinking, he is not able to work, so, without my job, I don’t know how we would have survived.

The benefits were not the only important reason for me to choose to work with Accenture all these years (close to nine now), nor was it the enormous support and flexibility from my managers and colleagues. What makes me the proudest to work for Accenture is the commitment to inclusion and diversity.

Raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder is not easy. You worry about their future—what will career prospects look like? Yes, she is incredibly smart and talented, but, even with therapy and school, crowds and noisy places are still overwhelming for her, and she can barely function in them (just taking her grocery shopping is a challenge, and places like shoe stores and Costco are sensory nightmares).

I chose to stay at Accenture because of its focus on ensuring we not only have top talent but also on hiring top-talent that is diverse, across races, religions, gender and disabilities. It means that there is a place for my daughter when she grows up—a company that can recognize her skills and understand and accommodate her needs. Given the fights we’ve had with the education system to date, this inclusion is more important to me than I ever would have dreamed.

“Inclusion is more important to me than I ever would have dreamed.”

Many of my colleagues have become close friends and are some of my biggest cheerleaders when I need it most.

Given the curveballs life has thrown at me—here are three things I wish I could go back and tell my younger self:

GET INSURANCE.

Even if you are employed, you never know what life will throw your way.

WHEN STARTING YOUR CAREER, FOCUS ON FINDING A COMPANY THAT MATCHES YOUR VALUES.

This requirement can be tough when the job market is competitive, but being willing to pay your dues somewhere you can be proud to work will make you feel good about yourself each and every day.

SHARE YOUR STORIES AT WORK.

Many employers I’ve worked for in the past advised that personal challenges have no business in the workplace. While your personal stories may not be appropriate to share during a presentation, finding a company that genuinely wants to know who you are makes all the difference in the world. Being able to share your successes and challenges with colleagues and managers makes it feel more like a family and increases your network of support when you need it most.

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