Following John Howard’s retirement through ill health, I was offered his position as manager of the training team at ITT London & Edinburgh Insurance, an offer I accepted with intense sadness. Then, as I was working away in my office in Worthing one summer’s afternoon in 1998, a company called Norwich Union (now Aviva) made a decision that changed the entire Bailey family’s lives – forever.
NU had made a strategic decision to grow its creditor insurance book and had two options to achieve this: organically or by acquisition. The second approach was clearly much faster and, accordingly, it decided to purchase ITT L&E. This brought me to an enormous crossroads in my career, as I was effectively given two choices: stay in Worthing – which would be 150 miles away from the powerbase – and ‘see what happens’ or become Sales Training and Consultancy Manager for Norwich Union. But the second choice required relocation to Norfolk – not negotiable.
Carol and I sat down and had the ‘big discussion’ and initially rejected the idea. Looking back, I think that was because we focused rather too much on the intangible, emotional and negative elements: we don’t know Norfolk, we’d lose all our friends, we love this house, we’ve always lived here, etc, etc. Then, driving home one evening, I remembered the ‘Churchill model’ of decision-making (for details, see my thank you to Sir Winston Churchill). This approach extracted the emotion and meaningless generalisations from the decision-making process to focus purely on tangibles. As a result, we reversed our original plan and decided to go ahead with the move. I remember telling the boys – they were 13 and 9 at the time – and they both burst in to tears. But we had decided so pressed on.
But all did not go well. My letter to Dr Clare Slater will describe the following eight months…
Dear Dr Slater
I remember being perched anxiously in the waiting area, preparing for the loudspeaker to announce it was my turn. From where would I begin? What would my first words be? Would I cry? I thought back to last evening when I had taken myself off for a walk and sat motionless – cross-legged like a young boy – in the long grasses of a huge nearby field, wondering what on Earth would become of me, my family and career.
Finally, the loudspeaker delivered its crackly announcement and I passed along the corridor, shafts of light falling before me from the huge Velux windows. I found myself sitting in your surgery. You were a locum GP and we’d never met. You asked me how you could help and I remember saying: “this is going to be difficult for me…” To which you smiled gently, adjusted your body position to signal that this was important to you, and replied: “that’s Ok, I’m here to listen…” I think I blurted out something like this:
“About eight months or so ago, I moved to Norfolk with my family. My boss and best friend, John, has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and had to retire. I was promoted in to his role and had to relocate from Brighton. Carol, my wife, hasn’t really settled, neither have the kids yet – what with new schools and not knowing anyone. I have a team of 14, but they’re based right across the UK – from Devon to Glasgow and pretty much every stop in between – so I’m on the road all the time which means I don’t really have much time at home which makes it worse. And I’m just exhausted, really. The other night, I had to drive back from Leeds – didn’t get in until 11 – I can still see the endless cones and pulsing orange lights through the roadworks and thinking, I just can’t do this anymore, And then Carol called to tell me that the cat has had to be put down so, as soon as I did get home, I had to dig a hole and bury it in the garden…”
It was then that the tears did arrive, suddenly and intensely. You took my hand and gently stroked my arm, allowing me to calm before offering your thoughts. I remember being rather embarrassed and apologetic but you responded with true warmth and caring. You told me that I needed to take a complete break from work, initially for two weeks. I squeezed your hand and thanked you. And I can’t tell you how much I meant that. You asked if I’d like to leave through a private entrance rather than have to traipse back through the waiting area, an offer I gratefully accepted. And I walked slowly home, the sun on my back, feeling as though a great weight had been lifted.
Even in these so-called enlightened days, it is still a lottery regarding a particular GP’s feelings towards exhaustion, stress and associated conditions. A great GP must care and listen before anything else, and neither of those qualities can be taught at medical school. So I’d like to thank you for what you did and how you behaved towards me that morning and over the several consultations we had over the following months. We became almost friends, chatting about family and pets, sharing occasional photographs. I often wonder what would have happened if it had been someone else sitting in that surgery on that emotional morning all those years ago. Would I be back on track as I am now? I don’t know. But what I do know is that, right at that moment, you saved me from falling.
Our cat at the time, Molly.
She was a rescue animal who had been horribly mistreated. She had a chronic chest condition and, as the photograph shows, very poor eyes. We cared for her and she came to trust us completely. Each night, she would insist on playing with me on the stairs before bedtime. She was also a great comfort to me in my darker days and I would take photos of her to show to Dr Slater, another animal lover. We had Molly for eight years, a real miracle considering her condition
Our cat at the time, Molly.