Illness and loss can be hard topics to discuss. Most people simply don’t know what to say or do when someone they know has been diagnosed with a serious illness or loses a spouse or child. It seems extra hard when that someone is an employee or coworker. When personal matters intertwine with work we often don’t know how to handle it.
A colleague shared with me that one of her coworkers was diagnosed with cancer. We’ll call her Sue. After going through treatment Sue was able to return to work. But her workmates were afraid to burden her with projects and treated her with kid gloves. This was hard on Sue. She wasn’t quite sure why she was being left out of projects despite feeling fine.
Eventually, she had a conversation with her boss and discovered he and the team were afraid of taxing her, so they decreased her workload. Sue shared her health was stable and she could handle her usual assignments. She also discussed her health with her coworkers so there was no longer the elephant in the room. After that, things improved considerably. She was included in projects and treated like the usual contributing coworker she had been before getting cancer.
So, just what do you do when a coworker or employee is seriously ill or has lost a spouse or child? Here are some tips.
Be mindful of HIPAA
From a human resources perspective, an employer should never discuss an employee’s health or medical related information with other employees. This falls under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations. Nor should the manager pry into the employee’s medical details. But you can express concern and sympathy. If the employee needs time off you can ask how much time he needs to be away if he knows.
Don’t avoid the person or the topic
Assuming it is common knowledge that the employee was sick or lost a close family member, don’t pretend nothing happened. You don’t need to ask for details, but if you avoid the person or topic the employee is going to feel like you don’t care. Simply express your sadness or condolences and leave the door open for conversation. For example you could say something like, “I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s passing. From the little I knew of him he seemed like a really great guy. How are you doing?” Don’t press for details if the person doesn’t seem to want to talk about it. Simply let her know you care and are willing to listen.
If you’re unsure of your employee’s mental or physical capabilities given what’s going on with him don’t automatically assume he isn’t capable of pulling his usual weight. Like Sue, you might make your employee feel incapable or shunned by decreasing his workload when he is able to do his job as usual. Instead, ask him what he feels he can and can’t do. Then respect what he says. If he states that he wants to work the same number of hours and have the same workload, believe him.
Don’t make it worse
Talking about death or medical challenges is hard. Many seemingly well intentioned people will say things they think are helpful but actually make it worse, such as, “Oh, my aunt had breast cancer. She had a horrible time with chemo.” Or, “I can’t imagine losing my wife. I bet you’re lonely.” Or, even something seemingly positive like, “Well you look great; your hair will grow in soon.”
When talking to your coworker, express your sympathy and ask if he or she would like to talk about it. Then, just listen. Don’t judge, give advice, change the subject, try to cheer her up or share negative stories about something similar.
All that said; don’t focus only on the sensitive issue. Your employee probably wants to get on with life and not have everyone asking about his illness or loss. Talk about everyday things too.
If you’ve faced a major illness or loss, what made things easier or worse for you at work? What advice would you give to people who have employees or coworkers who are sick or grieving?