Seeking support

Following the traumatic loss of her son, physiotherapist Linda Francois shares how the CSP helped her return to work. Robert Millett reports

Trigger warning: Suicide

Respiratory physiotherapist Linda Francois
Respiratory physiotherapist Linda Francois [Photos: Joanne O’Brien]

‘I don’t know what it was about Jaden. He was just one of those young men that was loved by everybody – even at his work, funnily enough, that’s how many colleagues spoke about him,’ Linda recalls.

‘He had a beaming smile and was always happy, always positive…he didn’t seem to have a care in the world.’

All of which made it even more shocking when, just three weeks after his 21st birthday, Jaden suddenly took his own life.

‘As soon as my son passed, I knew it was related to his work – I had no doubts,’ Linda says.

Jaden had recently joined the London fire brigade as an apprentice trainee firefighter, she explains, but soon after being allocated to a station, he began to raise concerns with his family about the treatment he was receiving. 

‘Jaden was neurodiverse, and young in comparison to his peers and didn’t totally understand how he was being treated, but he knew something wasn’t right,’ Linda says.

As a result, Linda and other family members advised Jaden to start keeping a record of any concerning language or behaviour he experienced. Jaden also applied to be transferred to a different fire station to leave the bullying, harassment and racism that he felt he was experiencing.

Linda Francois and her son Jaden
Linda with her son Jaden Francois-Esprit

‘He put in transfers time after time, and I think he was hopeful that that would happen, but then there came a time where he lost hope,’ Linda says.

‘He spoke to us and said, “I know that I’m not going to be able to move” and I think at that point he just totally lost hope. And the final catalyst was a confrontation with a senior staff member on his final night shift.’

‘When he passed, obviously, it was a major shock,’ Linda says. 

‘But I had no doubt in my mind the only issue that my son had was that he was unhappy at work.

'We felt he was being bullied and discriminated at work and, since 2020, I’ve been on a journey and a fight to prove that.'

Linda’s tenacious battle to seek justice and uncover the truth about what happened led to an independent culture review within the London Fire Brigade. The review, led by Nazir Afzal, the former chief crown prosecutor for North West England, was published in November 2022.

The findings of the report concluded that the organisation was institutionally misogynist and racist. This led to a nationwide review of the fire brigade and ongoing scrutiny into its practices.

‘And Jaden was the catalyst for that report,’ says Linda.

Working through the trauma

In the immediate aftermath of Jaden’s death, Linda took time off work. 

‘But only for about three weeks,’ she says. ‘Because I was just living in some kind of parallel universe at that time.’ 

Linda says one of the worst things about the situation with her workplace was that she’d only recently started there.

‘I started the job on the third of August 2020 and my son’s 21st birthday was on the fifth, and then he took his life on the 26th of August. 

‘So, all of this happened in the same month, within three weeks, and – it sounds ridiculous, really – but I had a lot of guilt about not turning up for work.’ 

Respiratory physiotherapist Linda Francois

As well as dealing with the terrible trauma and earth-shattering grief of losing her son, Linda also felt compelled to try to take action to uncover what had actually led to his death. 

‘There was so much going on at the time, as I was still fighting for my son with the fire brigade. I was having meeting after meeting with the commissioner on a regular basis as well,’ she says.

‘That’s all I was doing – investigating, sleeping, getting up, not really eating and then just going into work.’ 

Linda also felt like she had to be incredibly diligent and work especially hard once she was back at work, in order to ‘prove her worth’ in her new role, after having to take time off so soon after she had started. 

‘I was constantly watching my back, writing things down, and trying not to make any mistakes,’ she says. ‘It was mentally exhausting.’ 

Not only did I have this big investigatory role, fighting for justice for my son in the background. I was also trying to make sure that I stayed on top of my work – and making sure my emotions didn’t get the better of me – because the grief journey is a rollercoaster of emotions, but I was having to pretend I was ok when I wasn’t. 

‘Also, part of my job involves asking patients if they feel suicidal and that was really, really difficult to have to say that to people.

‘It was just awful. And eventually I crashed, and I had to go off again. And actually, I think I was at my worst that time – or a different kind or worse – because I was functioning but, emotionally, I was just so broken.’ 

Seeking CSP support

It was during this longer period away from work that Linda experienced the most difficulty, both with her trauma and her communications with her employer. 

Linda was officially signed off work by her doctor, in order to allow her time to recover from the physical, mental and emotional stress and trauma that she was undergoing.

But during this time, she was still being contacted by her employers on a very regular basis, which only added to the pressure she was already feeling, as she felt she was constantly being ‘checked up on’ and was possibly at risk of losing her job.

CSP member Linda Francois

‘I felt as though I was being put on trial.  I felt as though I was being forced to have these conversations because it was policy that they had to stay in touch with me. 

‘There was never anything personal like “How are you feeling today? Or “I’m really sorry to hear that. Let us know what we can do to help,” or anything like that.

'It was just a very scripted “Ok, so you’ve been off since X amount of time. You went off before that on such-and-such date and then you returned on this day…So, now we’re having this meeting because it’s X amount of months down the line and this is the process.”

‘That was what most of the conversations were like. And it used to distress me. Eventually, I just thought I actually cannot do this. I can’t understand why I’ve been signed off and yet I’m being forced to have these meetings. And I was worried I might lose my job, because I felt the process was literally taking me towards a disciplinary. That’s where it was going.’

It was at this point that Linda contacted the CSP to see what support might be available, and she was soon put in touch with her workplace union representative, Chris Barrett, and CSP senior negotiating officer Helen Purcell.

From that moment on, Chris began attending all of the scheduled meetings with her employers, and Linda says she saw an immediate and welcome change to the proceedings.

‘As soon as Chris came on board, straight away, when the next meeting happened and it started going down exactly the same path as usual – with all the scripted formality – Chris immediately intervened,’ Linda says. 

‘He was so professional. It was unreal. He just said “Actually, I think we all know this. We all know that Linda’s been off for a certain amount of time, so let’s get to the next things we are here to discuss…” and he skipped them through all the jargon – and he allowed me some respect, because he allowed my grief to be viewed as “significant” – and he brought some compassion towards me in those conversations. 

‘Before Chris came on board, to be honest, I felt like I was being a bit bullied and taken advantage of. But once I informed HR that my union rep would be attending the meetings with me, I think everyone composed themselves and started behaving differently towards me.’ 

Initially there was no flexibility in meeting dates until Chris became a part of the process. 

He was almost like a mediator, that’s how it felt, and he made the meetings feel safe. I felt like he was on my side – but he also clearly had my work’s interest in mind as well and was looking at how we could join both sides up and be fair about this.

Returning to work

CSP workplace rep Chris Barrett
Linda's CSP workplace rep Chris Barrett

Chris’s presence and input to the meetings also proved to be very beneficial when Linda eventually felt ready and able to return to work, as Linda says it seemed at that time that her employer had become reticent about approving her return and she feared they were attempting ‘to push me down the redeployment route.’ 

‘They were a little bit resistant about me going back to work and I started pushing, saying, “Look, I think I’m ready to go back to work”, and Chris kept very much reminding them and saying “Look, Linda’s been in the NHS for 20 years, she’s got a lot of experience. We need to respect that. We need to give her the opportunity to come back to work as a valued member.” 

‘And during the meetings, Chris also acknowledged that what I’d been through is one of the worse things anyone can imagine having to go through.

'He didn’t have to go into any great detail about it, but he was there to acknowledge it and he would say things like “What Linda’s been through is really difficult, so of course she’s going to feel like that.”

‘If Chris hadn’t intervened, I think I would have been so stressed out with all the meetings, and how they were talking to me, that I probably would have said, “Stick it. I’m not coming back” …So, I’m really glad that didn’t happen.’

Linda was also impressed by how patient and understanding Chris was with her.

‘He got it right with me, for sure,’ she says.

I think he probably thinks he didn’t do all that much, and we all do that sometimes as we think we don’t do much when we just get on and do our everyday jobs.

‘But, actually, the impact for somebody else is quite huge and for me, at the time, it certainly was, and I really thank him for that.

‘He got them to cut through the formalities and to be a bit more human with me – and to actually just acknowledge what I’d been through. Because it wasn’t just a case of “oh, I’ve been off work because I’ve been a bit sick” – I’d lost my child… and I’d lost my child in a really tragic way. And that trauma is ongoing.’

Striving to make a difference

Respiratory physiotherapist Linda Francois

'Once I was back at work, my colleagues said they were surprised by how I kind of hit the ground running,’ says Linda.

Many months later, although she enjoys being back at work and providing the patient care she specialises in, Linda says she has also had to accept that she now has other priorities which she needs to juggle alongside her NHS work. 

These include fund-raising for and raising awareness of a new community action group that she has set up in Jaden’s memory, specifically to help highlight issues within the workplace that can affect young adults.

As a result, Linda has recently become part time, to allow herself more scope to focus on growing and expanding the initiatives that Jaden’s passing has inspired her to take on, whilst also taking care of her mental wellbeing.

As our discussion comes to a close, Linda happens to mention that, through a freedom of information request, she managed to obtain copies of all of the paperwork the fire service had held about Jaden, including documents about his initial interview to join the service. 

‘One of the questions he was asked in his interview was about what he wanted to achieve in the future,’ she says.

‘And he told them that he wanted to “be a role model, make a difference and see a change”.’

It seems evident from that answer that Jaden and his mother possessed very similar traits, and that ‘the apple didn’t fall far from the tree’, as Linda continues to work tirelessly to ‘make a difference’ and to ‘make a change’ as she strives to shine a spotlight on the institutional failings that led to Jaden’s death and highlight the devastating impact that racial discrimination, microaggressions and a lack of awareness about neurodiversity can have in the workplace. 

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