When an Employee is Seriously Ill
Probably the most important first step a company can take is to recognize that no matter what the appearance, work life doesn’t go on as normal when an employee is seriously ill.
There is often a tendency for everyone affected by a seriously ill employee to try to carry on as usual. This is a normal response, but usually not the most beneficial or useful. Organizations should make it clear to employees that things aren’t “as usual” when a close knit work group has been made aware of their co-worker’s life threatening illness or condition.
When an employee is seriously ill, productivity and the dynamic of the workplace may be affected. The employee is someone people not only work with, but may also be friends with. The news that this employee is seriously ill can touch people’s feelings about their work and the workplace, their own health and their own fears about becoming ill and dying. When the news is unexpected and the employee is away from the workplace, it can be even more difficult for co-workers who haven’t had the opportunity to talk with the employee.
Reactions and emotions are different for everyone. They may include shock, denial, anger, anxiety, sleep disturbance, overwhelming sadness and problems with concentration. The extent of the “grieving process” will depend on the person’s relationship to the employee.
A major consequence of discovering a co-worker is critically ill may be the disruption of the normal support network within the workgroup. This occurs as employees turn inward while coping with their feelings, isolating themselves and refusing to talk about the individual’s circumstances.
Management may react to an employee’s serious illness by trying to minimize the impact of the situation on the work group or company. Employees may respond with anger if they don’t feel the support of management; this anger may also be directed at other employees and even an Employee Assistance Counselor.
Ways to Support a Seriously Ill Co-worker
- Send a card or gift basket to the employee
- Ask the employee how much and how often they want to hear about the workplace
- Hold or participate in some type of collection
- Create a book of laughs and memories: this can be given to the employee as a way to let them know they are being thought of and that they are appreciated for all they have done for the organization
What to Expect in the Workplace:
- People experience grief differently. People may feel depressed, absent-minded or sad. These are all normal feelings.
- Talking about the employee helps some people manage this difficult news. Others may choose to keep to themselves. Respect both coping styles.
- An employee’s serious or critical illness may provoke questions and fears about mortality, death and dying. If the concern is not addressed, diminished functioning may occur. Symptoms may include withdrawal, sadness, inability to sleep or concentrate, change in eating habits and avoidance of work.
- The background of each person within the work group affects the outcome of a tragedy. For some, encountering a co-worker with a life threatening illness or a death may resurrect painful, unresolved feelings about personal events of loss and grief.
- Guilt, anger and blaming are common reactions to tragedy. Typically, people look for someone or something to blame for the illness or death and may place that burden on the employee involved, themselves, doctors, management or the organization. The results include guilt and anger, directed inward or at others.
- Be aware of how people may react to replacing the employee with a temporary employee or to clearing their work area. Clearing the work area should be done respectfully and in conjunction with others sharing the workspace. Try not to erase the person’s place in your organization too quickly.
Help is available. Your EAP, Personal Assistance Services, is available 24/7/365 by calling (800) 356-0845.