Jonathan Backhouse – Bouncing Back: “I have MS, but MS doesn’t have me”

2022 is our year of ‘bouncing back’. Whether that is rebounding from adversity, overcoming a difficult challenge, achieving something when we didn’t believe it was possible, or something related to our collective challenge, the pandemic, we want to hear your stories.

In this article Jonathan Backhouse shares with us his professional and academic journey, and how, with the help of others, he has been able to navigate the challenges in his way. A diagnosis of dyslexia enabled him to see that he had not failed school, but that the system had failed him. An MS diagnosis lead to suggestions he should leave work – a suggestion he did not take. Jonathan shares with us how exploring and developing his ‘professional identity’, setting goals and using your motivation can help you get through sticky patches.

If you have a ‘bouncing back’ story that you’d like to share, then please do get in touch, we’d love to hear from you. Email alumni@hull.ac.uk


Could you tell us a bit about yourself – who you are, what you do, and how you came to be where you are today?

I have many facets to who I am and what I do; all of which forms my professional identity.[1]  In the context of work, I am a self-employed safety and health professional, fire risk assessor, lecturer, and author.[2]  I started my current career over 20 years ago, taking the NEBOSH general certificate and, six years ago, was the first person to be awarded the NEBOSH Masters of Research at the University of Hull.[3]  I also undertook a Certificate in Education, and then Masters in Education, which enabled me to complete  a Practitioner Researcher Programme at Oxford.[4]  In 2021, I successfully completed my Professional Doctorate (DProf), which had been my academic goal for as long as I can remember.[5]  My thesis for my DProf was A Critical Review of the Role of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health in Supporting their Members’ Professional Development.[6]My Professional Doctorate journey has led to the self-realisation that before becoming a safety and health professional I experienced, and continue to experience, imposter syndrome[7] which is common in academia, especially amongst doctoral and early-mid career researchers[8].

You went from leaving school with two GCSE’s to being where you are today – a self-employed safety and health consultant, teaching all over the world, writing books, and holding two Masters Degrees and a Professional Doctorate. When you left school did you know where you wanted to be at this stage in your career, or has that been something you worked out along the way?

When I left school, I signed up for a YTS (Youth Training Scheme, earning a total of £29.50 per week) and started to train to become an accountant; this was unsuccessful.  After trying other ‘careers’ including sales, then catering, I went to Bible College with the desire to become a vicar/minister[9].  An opportunity to return to accountancy came – and I became an accounts manager of a local engineering company.  However, after a short time I knew I wanted a change – on seeking advice from a friend I undertook the NEBOSH general certificate and so began my journey to become who I am and what I do today.

You weren’t diagnosed with dyslexia until after you finished school – what did that diagnosis mean to you? Did it change anything for you? If the diagnosis had come sooner, would that have made a difference for you?

Having a diagnosis made me realise that I had not failed school as I was led to believe, but school had failed me!  It did give me some understanding, but, to be honest, I did not act upon what this really meant until I started my safety and health journey.  I was aware the NEBOSH general certificate was a difficult qualification, but with the support of my wife, Diane, our friend Geoff, and my lecturers I was able to succeed.   I am unsure if having the diagnosis sooner would have made much difference as it was years later that I started to put the effort into my studies.  Knowing you have dyslexia and doing something about it are two very different things. 

In 2011 you were diagnosed with MS. How has this affected your approach to your life, work and studies? What helps you to keep going?

At the time of my diagnosis, I was about 6,500 miles from home.  I was teaching a health and safety course in Nairobi, Kenya. 

I had been unwell for some months. In a way I was relieved to understand what I had; MS was now part of my identity, but I will not let it be a defining part.  My frame of reference was my mum, who was diagnosed with primary progressive MS when I was about 3 or 4, and died when I was about to turn 14, within ten years.  Once I had my diagnosis I read as much as I could about the condition. While I was encouraged to give up work, I was not prepared to do this.[10]  I remember reading someone else’s narrative who was diagnosed with MS; they stated that “I have MS, but MS does not have me.” This has become my mantra.

Your approach to things seems to be focussed on being positive and ‘can do’, making a contribution for other people, and not being afraid to look for support from others (or to give support to others). What is it about this approach that helps you to ‘bounce back’ from things, to overcome adversity and to achieve your goals?

Having a long-term goal (in my case a doctorate) helps you to stay focused to shape your professional identity.  But equally as important is being aware of your own limitations.  Knowing when to push on and when to put the brakes on is imperative.

Throughout my journey there have been many people who have helped and encouraged me.   I am very much aware that my wife (Diane) has enabled me to achieve my long-term goal – emotionally with her love and support and practically with proofreading my work.   I’m very much aware that I would not have developed my professional identity if it was not for colleagues, lecturers, friends, and ultimately my wife. 

What advice do you have for others who might be going through a tough time, or might be struggling with something in their own lives?

When we face life’s tough times, we need to take time to refocus on our [professional] identity[11] by reflecting on:

  • Our values and motives: what are these, and why are they important?  For example, my values are linked at a personal level with my Christian faith.  Whilst not a Methodist I am drawn to the attributed saying of John Wesley:

Do all the good you can,

by all the means you can,

in all the ways you can,

in all the places you can,

at all the times you can,

to all the people you can,

as long as ever you can.

  • Our competencies: how can we develop our talents and abilities? For example, (as you will have read above) I have been motivated to achieve a doctorate to prove to myself that it was an achievable goal – for someone with dyslexia also to combat the imposter syndrome I continue to struggle with on a daily basis.
  • Contributions made: what changes can be made that will enhance the contributions that are in line with our values, motives and competencies?  For example, over the last 12 years I have been an active volunteer with IOSH.  In addition to the research for my doctorate I have supported the IOSH Tees Branch[12] in organising and presenting at 40 events, as well as undertaking over 70 peer review interviews.  My contributions are now focussed on my role as an elected member of the IOSH Council[13].

[1] https://www.ioshmagazine.com/2022/01/04/what-professional-identity

[2] https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonathanbackhouse/

[3] https://www.nebosh.org.uk/our-news-and-events/case-studies/jonathan-backhouse/

[4] https://feweek.co.uk/at-last-a-place-at-oxford/

[5] https://www.sunderland.ac.uk/more/news/story/class-of-2021-the-remarkable-journey-of-dr-jonathan-backhouse-1716

[6] https://sure.sunderland.ac.uk/id/eprint/14474/1/14474.pdf

[7] https://mpowir.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Download-IP-in-High-Achieving-Women.pdf

[8] http://orca.cf.ac.uk/131738/

[9] https://allsaints-church.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/2020-January-Programme.pdf

[10] https://www.mssociety.org.uk (link not available) Adjusting to Work, MS Matters, February 2016, p. 21

[11] https://www.ioshmagazine.com/2022/01/04/what-professional-identity

[12] https://iosh.com/health-and-safety-professionals/improve-your-knowledge/branches-and-groups/branches/tees-branch/

[13] https://iosh.com/about-iosh/who-we-are/governance-structure/council/

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