When Serious Illness Hits Work

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Friday 15th October 2010
In this article
  • How to deal with a coworker who becomes seriously ill.
  • What do to do when your coworker returns to work.
  • Sharp moves for those in management.

While you may not be best buds, you do spend a lot of time around your coworkers — so much so that they become a bigger part of our lives than most of us realize. Whether you share a workload or just a workspace, chances are that you rely on your coworkers to help you get the job done.

So what happens when Kurt, the guy who’s always up for a lunch hour excursion, learns that he has cancer?

Huh? But he’s only 29. How can he have a serious illness?

Serious illness doesn’t discriminate against the successful or the young. It can strike anyone, at any time. And when it strikes a coworker, it’s pretty safe to assume that your office and perhaps your own position will be affected, as well.

On the other hand, when handled properly, it can forcefully diversify your team’s skills and result in a more cohesive work group than before. How’s that? Consider the following SharpWork tips:

How You Can Help

Keep in touch. You might feel like there’s not much you can do–after all, you’re not a doctor. However, keeping in touch with your coworker via e-mail, telephone and notes will help your coworker maintain a sense of connected to his or her job and "normal life." Simply feeling a continued sense of involvement in his or her professional identity can aid in the recovery process. Beyond that, you may need to touch base with your coworker on an ongoing client matter, the whereabouts of a given file or some piece of information that only he or she has. By maintaining casual contact, you won’t feel awkward when calling about a work-related matter.

Keep it light. So what other stuff should you talk about? Send a joke or the latest water cooler gossip. Did Jack finally land a date with that hot new rep? Pass the news along. Humor can be a welcomed relief for feelings of frustration, helplessness and fear. (SharpMan Tip: Of course, always maintain your cautious risk management profile — be careful regarding whom you speak about, to whom, and in what form. Remember, e-mails are written records.)

Got something serious to say or ask? Don’t be afraid of saying the "wrong thing" and making your colleague feel worse. Be straightforward and honest with your questions. Your coworker will likely appreciate your respectful approach — and the fact that you’re making an effort to be there for him or her.

Lend a hand. Everyday tasks can become overwhelming if you’re cooped up in the hospital. If you’d like to help out a close coworker, a specific offer of assistance will be more effective than a vague "Is there anything I can do?" For example:

  • Offer to help with required paperwork during his or her absence so that work doesn’t pile up.
  • Keep your coworker in the memo loop (he or she just might be the only one who appreciates or even reads them).
  • Offer to pick up a paycheck or pick up a required health form from human resources.

But don’t stop at work:

  • Is there a dog that needs to be walked or fish that need to be fed?
  • Does his or her mail need to be picked up? Do bills need to be processed?

Whether your coworker is in or out of the hospital, help with any errands may turn out to be a lifesaver.

When you want to do more. Whether he’s a good friend or just someone without whom your own workload becomes a nightmare, if you’d like to make that extra step, consider the following:

  • Pick up some tasty take-out of your coworker’s choice. It’s amazing how appreciative people are to get their favorite brand of specialty coffee or ice cream while in the hospital.
  • Coordinate visits by groups from work, or coordinate sending cards, flowers or gifts.
  • Donate some of your sick or vacation time for your coworker to use. Ah come on–remember how he introduced you to his sister’s best friend? The least you can do is donate a measly eight hours.
  • Organize a blood drive, a 5K road race or a personal time drive to raise platelets, money or vacation or sick time from other coworkers.
  • Throw a party when treatment is finished or when your coworker returns to work.

When Your Coworker Returns to Work

The worst part is over. The illness is in remission or completely gone. Great news. Thing is, just because your coworker has gone back doesn’t mean that everything will return to normal immediately. Your coworker is likely to require some time to adjust to being back, refocus on office duties and rebuild the stamina to put in those hours again.

Suggest a meeting with key employees and management to discuss the issues that may arise. Anticipating a slower ramp-up may be the most efficient way to get your office back into its routine. Plus, the more people who understand the issues at hand, the more coworkers can share in the work overflow generated by a colleague who’s adjusting to being back.

What if You’re the Boss?

If you’re the sick coworker’s manager, the following tips may help you get him or her back into the office swing of things without making you feel like you’re insensitive and too focused on fiscal goals:

  • Allow for flexible work hours, telecommuting, job sharing and/or time off to attend treatment appointments.
  • When necessary, arrange for a closer parking space for the employee.
  • Give the employee permission to rest when needed. Cancer and other serious illness treatments can significantly reduce a person’s energy level.
  • Let the your recovering coworker make decisions over items in which he or she has control. Making decisions–even simple choices–help contribute to an overall feeling of being in control.
  • Cross-train other employees so that they can perform the worker’s job when necessary.
  • Rearrange the workload so absences aren’t too disruptive to getting the job done.

The American Cancer Society’s Web site (www.cancer.org) provides a wealth of information and tips on how to handle serious illness–for coworkers and management alike. Also try the Cancer Care, Inc. site (www.cancercareinc.org) for more information. The more you know, the more smoothly absences and returns can go.

This article last updated on Friday 15th October 2010
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