Personal stories from the workplace: Hilary the Company Director

Each month, Hear 2 Work talks to someone about their hearing loss at work, and finds out how their experiences could help you.

Hilary started to develop her hearing loss in her thirties and slowly came to the realization that it had to be addressed in order to continue being effective at work. She highlights some of the challenges she found as a trainer and Director of her own company and highlights the importance of being honest with yourself.

  • Can you tell me a bit about your hearing loss?
Hilary Guthrie
Hilary Guthrie

I vividly remember suffering from ear infections throughout my childhood but only began to be aware that my hearing wasn’t as good as others in my late twenties/early thirties. What really brought it to a head was an event when I was about 35 and working as a tutor. The class of 25 were not paying attention and when I asked what the problem was I was told it was “the music”.

A rather protracted conversation ended in me being told that they thought it was “that tune from the Sound of Music” which I immediately recognised as the tune my watch played as an alarm.  I had to admit that I couldn’t hear it, even though I was wearing it, and joined in the general laughter. However, it was extremely embarrassing and knew I couldn’t allow the situation to continue.

Continue it did though, for several more years, until the ENT consultant at the local hospital agreed to allow me to have hearing aids dispensed using the phrase, “you’ve suffered enough”. He seemed to think until that point, that my hearing problem could not be helped by hearing aids, but I never really got a satisfactory explanation of why he thought so.

I went very quickly from an NHS aid in my worst ear to a private “in the ear” model as the NHS one was so uncomfortable. As my hearing has deteriorated I have had to go from one aid in my left ear to aids in both ears and then recently back to “behind the ear” aids to get the necessary power.

I hear very little without them so wear them from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night. I have used a variety of assistive devices over the years but currently have a vibrating wrist watch, Bluetooth devices to transfer my mobile calls and the TV directly to my aids and a special telephone which has terrific amplification.

  • What do you do at work exactly?

I recently retired but used to manage my own small training company.

  • So what did your day consist of?

Much of my day consisted of working in my own office writing business proposals, financial forecasts and budgets, etc. I chaired monthly staff meetings, carried out annual staff performance reviews, attended meetings with our contractors ,and networking meetings with other companies in the same field.

  • Have you always done that kind of work?

I have always worked in finance but when I was offered a post as a visiting lecturer at a local FE college I found I loved teaching/training. That eventually led me to set up my own training company and I was able combine running the company with being responsible for some of the training. As the company grew however, it became impossible to do both and sadly I found myself unable to continue with a teaching commitment.

  • How did your hearing loss affect you at work?

I have always found communicating with those who have accents difficult; telephone conversations particularly so. Conversations with call centres, whether they were based abroad or in the UK, sometimes proved impossible and had to be taken over by someone else. I also have very little idea of which direction sound is coming from and found that embarrassing when with people I didn’t know well. Looking from face to face and asking” did you say something” does nothing for your professional image! I always tried to sit with someone I knew well on my left, my worst side, in meetings, as they understood my problem.

  • Did you have any issues with work colleagues?

I have never made any secret of the fact that I couldn’t hear well and have generally found people very helpful. I have found that any misunderstandings arise from my guessing what had been said rather than asking for it to be repeated.

  • Did you find it hard starting out?

I was lucky that my hearing loss was not pronounced when I began my career.

  • What helped you succeed in your career?

I think that to have a successful career, you must be able to adapt to the situation you find yourself in. I have always tried to look upon setbacks as opportunities to learn or take another direction, and I think it’s imperative that you recognise your strengths and build your career upon them rather than dwelling on your weaknesses.

  • What was the most difficult thing for you at work?

Meetings were the biggest problem.  Of course, within my own company it was easier, being “the boss” definitely helps!   Ten minutes into one staff meeting, called urgently and therefore after working hours, the battery in my hearing aid went. On checking, I found I didn’t have any replacements and I had to cancel the meeting until the following day. I suspect I wasn’t popular!

  • How did you manage to resolve it?

Always have spare batteries! Outside of the company I tried to make a point at the beginning of any meeting of reminding everyone of my hearing problems, asking if they could speak clearly and “apologizing in advance” for any disruption. Attending meetings which were composed of strangers were never easy. You really can’t keep asking for things to be repeated constantly and when people talked over each other, or spoke quickly, I was completely lost. I have been known to ask the person next to me to “keep me right” with what was being said, especially if it was a topic on which I needed to make a contribution.

  • What one piece of advice would you give to someone starting out in their career?

I think it’s imperative to be honest with yourself about the problem you have. I’m sure that nobody who experiences a gradual loss of hearing wants to admit it, indeed they may not even realise their hearing is poor until others point it out. But at that point it is foolish to “bury your head in the sand”. The problem needs to be faced and every bit of help that can be found, accessed.

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