What not to say or do when your coworker is sick or grieving

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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.

Don’t assume

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?

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6 thoughts on “What not to say or do when your coworker is sick or grieving

  1. Andrea Ballard

    Excellent article, Arden. I’m passing along the advice I heard from Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook who lost her husband last year. I found this so helpful, I hope others do as well.

    “Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”
    -Sheryl Sandberg

  2. Donna Ilvedson

    When I was diagnosed with breast cancer and knew I would have chemo, I let my boss know, of course and requested a reduced work schedule based on the chemo schedule. Then I told the team I worked closest with – and some friends at work also. A friend told me that if I wanted support I should talk about it…not to everyone but a few I felt closest to. I found my boss and team very supportive. Others in the office on the same floor didn’t have a clue – no need to know.

  3. Arden Post author

    Andrea, thank you for sharing that. Wow, how helpful to know that just adding “today” after “How are you?” made it so much better for Sheryl and I’m sure others who have faced similar tragedies. It makes sense, because where do you start when someone asks such a general question.

  4. Arden Post author

    Donna, thank you for sharing. It sounds like you had a really great boss and coworkers and that you handled letting them know well. Wishing you good health.

  5. Celeste

    You mentioned not assuming that someone can’t handle their normal workload, but I would also mention that just because someone is back in the office, it doesn’t mean they’re fully ‘there’. When my dad passed away, I returned to work pretty soon after but wasn’t operating at my usual capacity. My brain was fuzzy, I got tired easily and it took me longer to understand things. It was really meaningful that my manager and co-workers allowed to me get back to ‘normal’ at my own pace and had lots of grace when I couldn’t take more on and occasionally dropped the ball. It would have been easy for them to assume “she’s back in the office, so she must be fine” and I’m glad they didn’t. I guess it’s a good idea to not assume in either direction – that they can handle more or less than usual. Having the conversation about mental capacity is helpful even if they are physically present 100%.
    Thanks, Arden!

  6. Arden Clise

    Celeste, you are absolutely right! Very good point that you need to check in with someone who has faced a major challenge about their capabilities. And then be understanding with what they can or can’t do. I’m sorry about your dad’s passing.

    It sounds like you have/had a great boss and coworkers. That’s wonderful.

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