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Insights What would your employer do if life stopped you from delivering?

Meet Claire Dickenson, a talented environmental and sustainability expert thoroughly committed to engineering a better future. She's a Chartered Environmentalist and IEMA Fellow, working in the central Engineering Net Zero (ENZ) team at AtkinsRéalis.

When Claire returned to work from maternity leave, she firmly believed that being back at work and "doing something for me" would make her a better mum. However, the universe had a different plan for her family.

Claire, before we get to your personal story, tell us what you "ACTUALLY" do during a day in your life #InsideAtkinsRéalis.

I'm the Whole Life Carbon Management Lead in the Engineering Net Zero Team, driving the Net Zero strategy across the business. My role focuses on connecting the digital agenda with the carbon challenge and seeing how we can transform our design process. My current focus with my team is developing or enhancing processes, workflows and tools that can be automated as much as possible and integrated into our projects to drive down carbon emissions for our clients.

I also chair AtkinsRéalis' Sustainability in Design Technical Network globally. I'm responsible for building the worldwide technical network, supporting learning and knowledge-sharing, building capability, driving external engagement and communication, and enhancing delivery and win-work strategies.

Photo of Claire and her team smiling towards the camera

What happened that changed the trajectory of your career?

After my daughter was born in November 2019, I returned to the world of work filled with excitement. In March/April time 2021, everything began to change when my daughter was diagnosed with a rare blood disease, autoimmune neutropenia of childhood. Because of this, she's on neutropenic sepsis protocol.

Every time her temperature goes over 38˚C, she's admitted to hospital until her blood cultures are clear—no bacteria in her blood. This means a minimum of three to four days and nights in hospital at a time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, only parents were allowed on the ward and only one at a time. So we couldn't even have friends or family sitting with her for a bit while we took a breather. This meant either my husband or I had to be there at all times.

What impact does the treatment have on your daughter and you?

In late July 2022, we had our eighth hospital admission since May last year, with five since January. Each hospital stay takes its toll on my daughter, and it's understandable. She's locked in an isolation room where she's poked and prodded and has high-strength antibiotics pumped through her veins. Afterwards, we have a clingy and emotional two-year-old for a few weeks.

As you can imagine, every admission also affects my husband and me. Through this experience, I've had my own emotional journey too, and I'm so grateful to our friends and family for their support.

"I can see why parents can end up leaving the workforce, and I was so close to that point at times in 2021."

Photo of Claire with her daughter

(Photo credit: Katie Huggins)

What was work life like following your daughter's diagnosis?

I had a lot to come to terms with, and I had to learn what my daughter needed from me as her mum. My daughter's condition has meant that she can't be in regular childcare or mix with anyone who is ill, so it has been challenging to find stable childcare.

I had to realize that I couldn't deliver in the same way I used to professionally. What I had envisaged being my work-life post-maternity leave needed to look very different. I have to admit, there was one phone call with my line manager where I found myself in tears, and I nearly threw in the towel. However, I am so passionate about the work I'm doing at AtkinsRéalis. I really believe in creating a more sustainable future, and I love my role.

What kept you at AtkinsRéalis?

I'm thankful to AtkinsRéalis and all the wonderful people I work with for their support. The organization worked with my line manager and me to find me a new role. I can now flex work around the constraints of my current personal life and still deliver on the massive Net Zero challenge we all face. My team members have helped me pick up the pieces over the last year and not once but twice accommodated changes to my working hours since all this happened.

It's definitely been a journey! But I am so glad I've reached a point where work is manageable and flexible, and I can still contribute. I had to obviously accept change. For example, I had to give up leading a team I loved, but the balance is really good now, and I can be present and support my daughter as she needs.

As we all know, Covid has not gone away, nor have other illnesses. Going forward, how is AtkinsRéalis supporting you to protect your daughter's sensitive immune system?

I have found AtkinsRéalis and my colleagues incredibly flexible and accommodating to my needs. I do not feel anyone has made me feel less valued because of my changes in working hours or responsibilities. AtkinsRéalis is very flexible about where I work. Digital technology means I can work and join in with meetings from anywhere. I can flex my hours as I need to across the week, especially around hospital admissions or sickness-related childcare issues. AtkinsRéalis does a lot to include everyone and support those who are going through a challenging time.

Thank you for being brave enough to share your personal story. It will inspire many parents in similar circumstances. What made you speak out?

I suppose I wanted to share how great AtkinsRéalis has been at adapting a role for me around my big and unexpected life change. Ultimately, it's what's allowed me to stay working. I wanted to tell the story to let people know it's okay to speak up for your needs and work with your line manager if changes are needed. We live in a much more blended world now, and the work-life balance, especially with additional challenges, is really important.

The reality for me is lots of parents in our Facebook autoimmune neutropenia support group have had to give up work due to this disease. I'm so glad I can still help to make a difference. I know that one day I'll be able to pick up more again when hopefully, my daughter outgrows this childhood disease. *Fingers crossed.*

Learn about the many ways we support different employees inside AtkinsRéalis.