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'Returning to work after a life-changing illness' by Michael McDonagh


Michael McDonagh

The International Beverage Human Capital team is used to helping people get the best out of the working day, supporting their health and wellbeing, both in and out of work. It’s a pillar of the business, and the HC team’s commitment to getting it right was recognised last month with two wins at the HR NETWORK National Awards – one for Health and Wellbeing excellence.

But what if something happens to an employee that turns their whole world upside down, both personally and professionally?

This is exactly what happened at International Beverage last year, to long standing warehouseman Michael McDonagh (60). Michael found himself facing life as an amputee, and the story of how he dealt with this devastating event, going on to rebuild his life and resume his highly valued full-time role in the warehouse team in Airdrie has inspired the whole company.

Having been unable to find any examples of amputees returning to a manual role in whisky production, Michael and International Beverage Human Capital Business Partner Kelly MacKay wanted to share their story with the wider industry to help others who may meet a similar challenge in the future.

Michael’s story

I was walking in the park a few years ago and felt that something had become stuck on the bottom of my foot. I thought it was maybe a blister but when it didn’t get any better, I went to a podiatrist to get it checked. I had a minor operation in November 2021 to rectify the issue and was able to return to work in January 2022. At that point it didn’t seem to be anything too worrying.

But a few months later in April last year, I realised that something was very wrong and my foot had flared up and become infected. I eventually ended up in hospital where I was told that the situation was very serious. In fact, If I didn’t get my foot and lower leg amputated, I was told that I was going to die. It was shattering news and I only had one day to decide what to do. But I thought about my grandkids, and it was a clear decision.

The day after the operation, it was like waking up in a different world. Everything had changed. I quickly realised that I wanted my old life back and I’m grateful to one of the doctors who told me straight: if I wanted to get that, I had to get out of bed and get moving!

I started off using a wheelchair. But the thought of waking up every morning for the rest of my life and seeing that wheelchair spurred me on to get up onto crutches. Then I went to Hairmyres for rehabilitation and endured many weeks of physiotherapy which was tough going. I eventually had a prosthetic leg fitted below my knee at westMARC (West of Scotland Mobility and Rehabilitation Centre). I had to learn to walk again, which was very hard. Looking back, I think I was very determined that I wasn’t going to let this stop me doing the things I wanted to do. I was very focused on that goal and getting back to normal as soon as I could.

I also felt I was too young to retire. I’ve been in my job for almost 20 years and my colleagues have always really looked after me, so I felt that I’d be in safe hands. I was offered a phased return to work, starting off with a few hours a day over a month until I felt strong enough to return full time. It was a learning process, it still is, every day. I’ve felt that the business has understood my individual situation but also treated me normally which has been great.

I think it says a lot about International Beverage that I have been successful in my return to work after going through such a major change in my life. The medical teams can’t believe how well I’ve done, but I think it has been about having a goal. I hope my story shows people that you can continue working in a job you love, with the right amount of determination and support from colleagues and your employer.

Kelly’s story

At International Beverage we take great pride in supporting our employees and fostering a culture of inclusivity, equality and diversity. Our mantra is that everyone is welcome and valued for their contribution and we don’t tolerate any type of discrimination. If there are barriers in the way of people thriving and reaching their full potential, we will work together to overcome them, making sure we live up to our commitment to make this a Great Place to Work where everyone feels comfortable being themselves.

These values have been at the forefront of our work with Michael over the past two years. His situation was a first for us, but the strong HC pillars underpinning our business quickly came into play to support him as he navigated an extremely difficult time in his life.

Another very important business value in supporting Michael’s successful return to work has been honesty. It has been challenging for him, but we have encouraged an open and honest dialogue. As a result, Michael has inspired our team with his incredible mental strength, determination and positive attitude throughout. I’m very proud of the way our team has listened to him and been led by him as an individual.

For anyone in our profession who finds themselves in a similar situation, the big insight that the International Beverage HC team has drawn from Michael’s experience is that everyone is different. Listening to people as individuals, learning about their unique situation and being led by them as to what they need from your business will support a successful outcome.