Manager's Role

Serious illness can shock us in the workplace. When an employee or coworker becomes seriously ill, the productivity and dynamics of the workplace are affected. You may have spent many hours with the person, and consider that person a friend, not just a coworker. Illness touches peoples' feelings about their work and workplace, their own lives, and their fears about death and dying.

Dealing with illness can be difficult. What can you do if someone who works for you is seriously ill?

Respect the sick person's desire for privacy.
Make sure you know what you can share and what is confidential. Honor these wishes even if you disagree with them. How much or how little of a sick person's illness is disclosed is for the individual and you, the manager, to decide.

Address practical concerns.
Check sick leave, FMLA, and other policies that deal with the employee's practical concerns. Contact Human Resources for more information.

Share the workload.
When tasks need to be re-distributed, thank staff members for their extra effort. They are sharing both the emotional burden and the additional work.

Maintain office connections.
An employee's serious illness reminds us of our own mortality. Sometimes we shy away from a sick person as though the condition were catching. Make sure the sick person is included in key meetings or invited to office social gatherings. He/she may decline, but the gesture is important.

Keep in contact with an absent employee.
For a seriously ill person, the connection to work life can be vitally important. Sharing office, business, and staff news keeps the person from feeling isolated. The difficulty is to maintain this connection while balancing the desire for privacy and the effects of the disease on the sick person's energy.

Stay in touch.
Your presence in the person's life is more important than the specific steps you take. Some companies “pitch in” and offer shopping, visiting, or vacation time to coworkers who are ill.

Designate one person to be the office liaison.
This person can be responsible for passing along information on how the sick person is doing, what he/she needs, and how much contact he/she feels up to.

Encourage coworkers to call and/or visit.
Encourage cards, letters, or food deliveries that don't require the sick person to actively interact. An informal office video in which everyone says hello or gives their own messages can work wonders. These activities not only maintain a connection with the sick person, but help office morale and create a sense of community in the face of a crisis.

This information was originally developed by the Hospice Council of Metropolitan Washington. Copyright 1996, National Hospice Organization, Arlington Virginia. All rights reserved.