Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

A colleague just told you she has cancer and will soon start chemotherapy. How do you react? Or, maybe it’s your boss who had a significant heart attack and is critically ill. What do you do? Or, a colleague has COVID-19 and is now hospitalized. How do you respond?

Having a colleague fall critically ill can have a traumatic impact on the work team. We may worry about a valued friend or supervisor. It may bring up past events when someone close to us has been ill or trigger fears about our health or the wellbeing of loved ones. It’s essential to recognize the impact this may have on your team’s resilience and respond in ways that support your ill co-worker and the rest of the office.

Here are several things to think about if you have a colleague who has a severe illness:

Give Them Control

When we are ill, we lose control over many aspects of our lives. This loss of control can erode the resilience we need to combat the disease. To help your co-worker maintain control over their life, allow them as much control at work as possible. Don’t make any assumptions. One person may not want to work at all while ill.  Another may prefer to stay as engaged as possible. Ask them how much they would like to be involved and respect their decisions, even if you disagree.

Adjust Work Priorities

Accept that your colleague will not be as productive as usual for quite some time and discuss what impact this will have on the rest of the team. Don’t overwhelm teammates with extra work they can’t handle. Instead, put some projects on hold while focusing on your highest priorities. You don’t want your ill colleague to feel guilty about colleagues suffering from overwork.

Be Available to Listen

Many people appreciate the concern and support of their co-workers. Some will be open about their illness and want to talk to colleagues about their diagnosis. If this is the case, ask open-ended questions and listen. Don’t offer advice or share horror stories from other people. Don’t pressure them to “stay positive” or put on a happy face. If your colleague does not want to talk about their illness, respect their privacy, and talk about other topics.

Follow the Ring Theory

Susan Silk developed the Ring Theory after suffering from breast cancer. Unfortunately, some friends sought her support to help them through her illness. What she needed instead was unconditional support from these friends, and they needed to find comfort elsewhere. The Ring Theory is simple. The person who is ill is at the center of a series of rings. People in outer rings should only seek support from or complain to people in their circle or a ring that is further out. If you’re struggling, find help from a co-worker or your friends or family, never from your ill colleague.

Participate in Caring Bridge

If someone close to your colleague has set up a Caring Bridge site, visit it for regular updates. Sign up for tasks. Using Caring Bridge reduces the burden on your ill colleague who cannot manage dozens of well-meaning requests for how people can help. If you do sign up for a task, don’t put any additional burden on your ill colleague. For example, one of my colleagues found the need to return food storage containers to their owners to be overwhelming.

Be Creative With Office Gifts

While it is always nice to send a card to someone who is ill, think about other ways you can be helpful. For example, Lyft or Uber vouchers could help a person get to/from treatment. You could pay for a cleaner before the person comes home from the hospital. Or, they may appreciate help with childcare or with pets. Or, pay for a meal service or a massage. Before sending flowers, consider whether they would be welcome or be too much of a burden.

Have you been critically ill? What did your co-workers do that helped you the most?