Long Read : Ask and you shall access

Mar 30, 2024

I wouldn’t normally start a blog with a (sort of) proverb, but this blog is different. This is about how my business – and my life – changed after successfully applying for Access To Work and asking for help in general.

But not only that – it’s also about how becoming an ATW Support Worker myself has further changed both of those things.

Access To Work is a UK government program that provides financial support to cover the extra costs that people with disabilities or health conditions face in the workplace, helping them to stay in employment or start their own business.

ChatGPT wrote that last sentence. That’s important later on.

This is a long read

So allow myself to introduce… myself (you get a lot of cultural references with me and won’t always ‘get’ them – this one is Austin Powers).

I’m Alan Sawyers, my business is AS Design and we provide a range of creative and digital services mainly to other small businesses and SMEs in the North East.

I was recently pre-diagnosed ADHD via Celebrate Difference and their newly-launched QbTesting facility.

I was granted Access To Work in 2022, the same year I started working with a number of people who have helped transform my business and change my life.

This blog is a case study on asking for help.

Addressing The Stigma

“People with disabilities or health conditions” is a scary sentence to read if you have lived your life not classing yourself as having either of those. Once you get past that, it becomes a very personal thing.

This support program is about asking for help you probably didn’t even know you needed.

So I don’t mind falling into that category of people. I know now that I’m in good company.

My life, business and struggles two years ago

It was January 2022 and we were just coming back to ‘another new normal’ after various lockdowns and restrictions. I’d gone self employed in late 2019 and had just worked and worked – for the first time – every single day for myself for two and a bit years.

I’d spent 2020 and 2021 helping clients, whose businesses had been negatively affected by the pandemic, to improve or create their online operations. Now I was helping them turn some of those online operations back into in-person ones.

I was mainly working with clients I had worked with for years, or had at least worked with before. Some clients were retained, others I’d maybe built a website for in the past and it had just become an ‘online presence’ or brochure site that didn’t really deliver any practical results for the clients because it wasn’t where their businesses were at the time.

I spent those two years hearing the word ‘pivot’ a lot and, whilst always hearing it shouted out by Ross from Friends trying to get a sofa up some stairs, I had become part of my clients’ pivoting, sometimes on a daily basis as the world changed around us.

I had clients who had taken me in as part of their own teams and – as completely lovely and totally needed as that was – it was very very intense at times. Imagine having ten jobs, ten bosses, ten teams of colleagues, ten lots of processes and procedures, ten Zooms to ‘just jump on’, ten times a day of “you’re on mute, can you hear me?”, ten lots of daily emails from 1-5 people per client, ten versions of everyone’s rock they needed you to be.

So as back stories go, mine in this context is that I had spent my first two full years of self employment being “the support worker” my clients needed at the time they needed it.

Where that left me was being very good at responding to everyone’s needs, just not mine.

Turning my own business around

My business didn’t need turning around as such, but I was getting a lot of things wrong.

I was the master at doing everything everyone needed in the here and now. What I realised I was very bad at was – well actually a number of things but here’s a few…

  • Remembering to do tasks that weren’t ‘quick fixes’
  • Planning bigger or longer term projects very well
  • Executing or sticking to what plans I had made
  • Coming up with new ideas and focusing on them
  • Neglecting what was actually paying the bills
  • Writing things down
  • Taking notes in meetings
  • Being able to find – or bothering to look at – things I had written down or notes I’d taken
  • Taking time off
  • Saying no
  • Saying yes but not yet
  • Coping very well
  • Asking for help

Andrea 1.0 and previous model

I was first introduced to Andrea “Workerbee” Holman in 2021 after I’d been working with a VA who had to move on when they were asked to increase their hours for another client.

I’m calling this Andrea 1.0 because at the time, through no fault of her own, what she was doing wasn’t really helping.

In my head, all I needed was someone to keep me on track with my to-do list. I’d used various online tools over the years that you might consider project or workflow management, and had landed on Basecamp as a simple system that would allow me to make an online list of things to do.

Andrea, and her predecessor, had access to Basecamp and would log in and nudge me if things were overdue. This is a full time job for anyone. That’s important later on.

What this wasn’t doing was…

  • Actually making sure the tasks were added in the first place
  • Putting them in any sort of priority order
  • Making sure I didn’t just spend my days ticking off quick tasks
  • Keeping me accountable in progressing the bigger tasks
  • Making sure I replied to clients to tell them when things were done

How does all this apply to health?

Simply put, all of this was probably going to kill me, or at best make me very unhealthy, unhappy and running for the door.

What could be explained away as “struggles” or “anxiety” started to become more linked to something a bit deeper.

There’s probably not a blog about my working life since 2019 that I could write and not talk about Nicola Jayne Little.

Nicola was diagnosed as ADHD in 2020 and, as someone else who is no stranger to coming up with shiny new toys to play with, created a new business on the back of it.

The Game Changer For Many – Celebrate Difference

When Nicola began sharing her journey and talking to other business associates who resonated with her situation, she realised that she needed to support others like her.

Celebrate Difference was launched a certified Social Enterprise whose vision is to improve social equity for those with ADHD.

And this shiny new toy turned out to be the one Nicola was always destined to own.

Nicola was awarded Access To Work and now it’s the job of her team to help others apply, then to help them manage their award, and to pair them with the best support workers, and to actually find and manage those support workers.

So it’s no surprise that, after years of running solo and micro businesses, Celebrate Difference became the business that – at time of writing – has a team of 20.

Why I applied for Access To Work

Nicola saw my struggles and probably saw in me some traits that had led her to her own ADHD diagnosis.

So she suggested we get all of my struggles down on paper so that she could assess whether it was worth making an application.

From the outset, Nicola made it clear to me that Access To Work was…. to quote ChatGPT again “a UK government program that provides financial support to cover the extra costs that people with disabilities or health conditions face in the workplace”.

Do I want to identify as disabled? Or someone with a health condition?

As it happens, I have been asthmatic for three quarters of my life and that brings its challenges on a daily basis. I’d also been recently diagnosed with epilepsy, which I am convinced was brought on – or exacerbated – by a stressful situation that happened with a client I ended up using a solicitor to extract from my life.

So I applied.

What support I was offered

During the assessment call, with Laura Forsyth from Celebrate Difference, and a representative of the DWP’s ATW team, a few motions were went through, a few boxes ticked, and I was asked if any equipment or tech would help my needs.

Not really.

What transpired by the end of the call was that I needed “a person” – someone who would help me to stop doing all of the things I was doing wrong and start doing more of the things I was good at.

Quite literally I needed a support worker.

And this wasn’t going to be simply a case of hiring someone. This needed to be someone who was going to be able to identify and recognise my struggles, not judge me for them or blame me for them, as others around me had been doing (even if unintentionally).

So Andrea came to the fore, with Celebrate Difference managing my award, which was… to quote the rest of that previous ChatGPT sentence “helping them to stay in employment or start their own business.”

Nathan “phase one”

In a detour from the ATW story, but very much in the “Asking For Help Multiverse” I took on my first employee in 2022 at around the same time I was going through the ATW application.

I say first employee, but actually my mam holds that title, as I gave her a cleaning job during the first lockdown after she’d been made redundant. That role wasn’t my choice – I wanted to help her and create a way she could legitimately see me during social distancing periods, and cleaning up after me had been her unpaid job for 42 years at that point anyway.

Nathan also came to me via one of Nicola’s shiny new experiments. And a very successful one. Nic’s other business MINT Business Club was a gateway partner for the government’s Kickstart program. Time to ask ChatGPT to summarise that…

The UK government’s Kickstart Scheme was designed to create new job placements for 16 to 24-year-olds who were at risk of long-term unemployment. It aimed to provide young people with six-month work placements, funded by the government, to give them experience and skills to improve their chances of finding long-term employment. The funding covered 100% of the relevant National Minimum Wage for 25 hours a week, along with associated employer National Insurance contributions and employer minimum automatic enrolment contributions.

AI is correct technically. What isn’t correct – or at least accurate in this instance – is the part of that sentence that reads “at risk of long-term unemployment”.

Though I’m sure that’s how the scheme was designed, Nathan wasn’t in that category having only been unemployed for a couple of months and very actively looking for work.

I won’t go into it, but there were so many reasons why Nathan getting his job with me should never have happened. To quote another commonplace phrase “in the right place at the right time” would be inaccurate. In fact, “in the wrong place at the wrong time” is how Nathan ended up sat in my office in January 2022 for what we still call an “INTERVIEW” with air quotes.

What we achieved together in the two years that followed is nothing less than phenomenal in my eyes. In fact, just skip to the good bit here.

What is important in the context of this blog is that Nathan was the help I didn’t ask for, but I received. In a twist of fate, I’d actually employed him to work in some other businesses I’m a director of. But if you clicked on the link in the previous paragraph, you’ll know that’s not where he ended up.

One of the things I learned about Nathan early on is that he fucking LOVES ticking tasks off. And one day, as I’m sat still not quite managing my struggles on a daily basis, Nathan said to me after looking at a long list of overdue tasks, “I’m just going to go through your list and see if there’s anything I can tick off.”

That was probably a defining moment in why I always vow to return the help and support I receive with whatever I can give back.

Business changing.

In a similar scenario, when Nathan used to finish at 2.30pm I’d regularly say to him on a Friday that I would probably not be in the office for much longer.

The thing is, I’d been telling myself that for the past two years – that I would finish early today, take a half day, take a day off. It just didn’t happen.

So one day, he said: “I’ll just start switching your PC off when I leave so you have to leave too.”

That off-the-cuff remark, meant jokingly I’m sure, resulted in Early Finish Fridays which are still a thing for us.

Life changing.

Andrea 2.0 and Monday Not Com

All of this “early phase” Nathan stuff (we have a 5 year plan split into phases, it’s a long story but we’re a little bit geeky in our terminology sometimes) was happening between me starting my ATW application and receiving a response, which took around six months.

What we did over the second half of 2022 was almost Andrea 1.1, and 1.2, and so on… however many times we changed what we were doing to get to 2.0.

Today, Andrea is as much a part of the team as anyone, and I haven’t talked about Nic and Josh yet as it would turn this five-page blog (at point of writing) into fifty. What I will say is that being a director of multiple businesses (currently five) can make you a busy fool. Nic and Josh are both a big part of this ‘asking for help’ process.

Nic and Josh work for AS Design but for our production/ecommerce clients and sister companies – so they’re integral to the AS team but don’t share the office with Nathan and I and don’t do what we do.

Monday Not Com is a reference to one of the best purchases we’ve made as a business. It’s called Monday.com and we absolutely love it. We just don’t like the name. Saying “dot com” sounds very 2001 (the year Nathan was born, so that puts THAT into perspective) and saying “It’s on Monday” – well I mean, what? the day or the system?? It just causes too much confusion. So we changed our internal naming of it to just “Workspace”.

Andrea and Nathan are on top of Workspace every single day. I’m not, as I’ve learned I’m really good at managing someone else’s workload but not my own. So they both keep me on track and Nathan has created several automations within the system that help us both.

So let’s take a look at the list of struggles from earlier

  • Remembering to do tasks that aren’t ‘quick fixes’ – Non-urgent tasks are now managed using a date-sorted Workspace view. Andrea, Nathan and I share an inbox so far far fewer things get missed than when it all lay with me.
  • Not planning bigger or longer term projects very well – We have a staged approach to projects and an automation called “ACTION – Name” where once one of us as done what we need to we can select “ACTION – Nathan” for example and that passes the task to him.
  • Executing or sticking to what plans I had made – Andrea and Nathan make sure I do this.
  • Coming up with new ideas and focusing on them – I still do this, but I’ve started to become more strategic with it, for example instead of coming up with a new product range to sell online and distract me from my main business, I tend to come up with initiatives that are directly or indirectly generating income for AS Design.
  • Neglecting what was actually paying the bills – see above.
  • Writing things down and taking notes in meetings – Andrea now joins most major meetings and some regular client meetings, and handles a lot of calls with new clients in the first instance before I even speak to them.
  • Being able to find – or bothering to look at – things I had written down or notes I’d taken – I’ll often write things down and send a photo to Andrea. It’s not perfect, as sometimes it’s just a list of words… but see above also.
  • Taking time off – thanks mainly to Nathan, I have a better work life balance than ever and actually went away for 3 full days – TWICE – in 2023. And in fact I almost cancelled a trip I’d planned to the Highlands in November and Nathan encouraged me not to.
  • Saying no – I’m getting better at saying no but getting much better at the next item…
  • Saying yes but not yet – this is where things have improved a lot. Andrea knows all of the clients and what level of retainer (if any) they pay for, and between the three of us and Workspace we’re much better at prioritising and future-dating tasks.
  • Coping very well – I still struggle – all of the things most business owners experience – overwhelm, self-doubt and self-sabotage, etc etc, but now have people around me who make it easier and sometimes we just say “fuck it” and go home for the day if we’re not feeling it.
  • Asking for help – completed it mate.

It took all the strength I had not to fall apart

Another fable to start the penultimate section – but this time not from The Bible or commonplace turn of phrase, but a cultural reference from Gloria Gaynor (or from lyrics written by Dino Fekaris on the back of getting sacked from Motown Records so there’s a work/business link there).

As part of my ATW award, I was introduced to Work Pirates James Eves and Michelle Minnikin, who took me through a process of finding my strengths in business.

MY strengths? This was also a game changer.

The top ten out of 34 analysed strengths, taken from the CliftonStrengths test, were delivered to me by James over three sessions and – eye-openingly – almost all of my top ten were being played out in the real world in things that had been happening within the business.

My top strength was Individualisation: You are intrigued with the unique qualities of each person. You have a gift for figuring out how different people can work together productively.

Add to that Relator: You enjoy close relationships with others. You find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.

Mix in Developer: You recognize and cultivate the potential in others. You spot the signs of each small improvement and derive satisfaction from evidence of progress.

Add a sprinkling of Empathy: You can sense other people’s feelings by imagining yourself in others’ lives or situations.

Serve that up with Maximiser: You focus on strengths as a way to stimulate personal and group excellence. You seek to transform something strong into something superb.

There was a pattern forming here – most of my strengths were centred around people. It made sense that I actually now had some of them around me in my business.

And it all sounded like me.

I was keen to have the rest of the team take the test and find their strengths, so we’d know how to work together.

On the day they all took their tests, I was delivering training off-site and got back to the office and was met with the biggest buzz and most positive atmosphere I could have hoped for.

We now have all our Top 5s printed out in the office (Josh only got 5 as he had to take a student’s version of the test being 16 at the time).

And by the way, if you’re wondering how this all links to the previous sections of this blog, my ‘bottom 10’ strengths include Discipline (routine and structure), Focus (staying on track), Responsibility (taking ownership), Consistency (stable routines) and Restorative (solving problems)… is it a coincidence that these are the things I was asking for help with?

Everyone has ADHD these days

They don’t. It’s around 3-4% of adults in the UK. People say “everyone has ADHD these days” but that’s probably because it’s being talked about a lot more. It’s like saying everyone is trans, or gender fluid, or a Just Stop Oil protester… just because it’s on everyone’s TikTok feeds doesn’t mean it represents the nation.

It just so happens that I now regularly work with other people who are neurodivergent – Nathan and I are both registered Support Workers with Celebrate Difference and working with others to help them get the most out of their ATW awards and support them in their business is now a major part of what I now call “our” business. As it’s long since been about me.

I recently had my QbTest. Let’s see if ChatGPT knows what that is…

A QbTest is a computerised assessment tool used to assist in the evaluation of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). It combines attention, impulsivity, and motor activity measures in one test to provide a comprehensive profile of a person’s behaviour and attention span. The test involves performing tasks on a computer while movements are recorded with an infrared camera, helping healthcare providers obtain objective data to support the diagnosis and management of ADHD.

Well there you go. We ask AI for help all the time, it works if you know how to harness it.

And, to start cutting this long story short, I probably won’t proceed to full diagnosis – and will certainly avoid medication all I can – but it’s another insight into what’s going on inside.

Nathan has taken his and Josh and Nic are next. Andrea will probably follow too.

None of us are falling for the “everyone has ADHD these days” line, but the way I look at it, why should I understand my own struggles – and how the people around me are helping – if I don’t understand what’s going on inside them too.

If they ask for help, I am first in line to respond to the call.