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Coping With a Sick Coworker

Everybody’s experienced discomfort at the office that they’ve needed to dance around. The friction over the splatter marks in the microwave. The gnawing resentment at the knowledge your coworker got the raise you didn’t. The office romances gone south.

But among the most sincerely unpleasant workplace scenes you might find yourself having to navigate is the one in which a professional comrade is stricken with a serious illness — and you haven’t a clue how to deal with it.

Whether to confront the awfulness head on, or pretend nothing has changed at all, is the first hurdle to cross.


Among the abundance of expert advice on this subject, the prevailing counsel says take your cues from your sick colleague above all else. If she opens up the dialogue about her illness, that’s a reasonable signal that she’s interested in talking about it. If you’ve been told of her condition by someone else, however, you need to be particularly sensitive to her willingness to engage in conversations about it.

Importantly, if you do enter into a discussion about her condition, be sure to inquire about her feelings regarding how well circulated she wants the news. It may be that she wants to keep it confidential. Or perhaps she’d feel more comfortable putting the thing squarely on the (boardroom) table and letting everybody pitch into her sufferings.

Beyond that, some general counsel on coping with your coworker’s illness:

  • Make an effort to reach out. It’s human nature to distance yourself from someone when they become ill, but isolation can be a problem for folks who are sick.
  • Don’t overdo the sympathy. Say you’re sorry, and make it clear that you’re always available to talk or listen. And then move on.
  • Include your colleague, as you would have otherwise, in any social plans.
  • Keep in touch with her if she’s away sick for any period of time.
  • Be sensitive to her fatigue, especially if she’s undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
  • Be sensitive to her emotional states. Seriously ill people can feel good one day, and miserable the next. Ideally, her coworkers will ride the coaster with her.
  • Remember your relationship. If you weren’t close before she fell ill, it might seem disingenuous to suddenly pretend you’re best buds.
  • Offer practical, specific assistance, like rides to doctor’s appointments, child care, shopping and food prep. Or volunteer to be a “point person” who organizes schedules for meals, rides and chores. And if there are ways in which you can help out with projects at the office, offer that kind of help, too.
  • Don’t assume the sick person can no longer do her job. Work can be a real balm to someone facing such trouble. It serves to both boost their self-worth and distract them from the bad stuff.
  • Steer clear of blanket statements you have no business making, like, “I’m sure you’ll be fine” and “I know how you feel.”
  • Respond to, and with, humour — if your coworker uses it. Don’t, if she doesn’t.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know what to say or that you find the subject difficult to talk about. This kind of candor can clear away lots of the awkwardness.
  • Don’t go quiet when your colleague walks into the room.
  • When your coworker returns to work after an absence, acknowledge it with a card, flowers or some other token to let them know people missed them.
  • Donate some of your own sick or vacation time to your sick associate.
  • Always be kind.

Sadly, the experience of having a seriously ill coworker is not an uncommon one. Indeed, given that some 524 Canadians are diagnosed with cancer every day, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll work with someone suffering in this way at some point in your career, particularly if you work in a large company.

It’s not unusual to feel anxious about saying the wrong thing or behaving inappropriately with a seriously sick officemate. But if you always remember to act in a way that would please you if you were on its receiving end, you’ll do just fine.

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