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How to Support A Chronically-Ill Coworker or Employee

Work is our second home. We spend almost as many waking hours with our coworkers as we do with our families. Because we spend so much time with coworkers, we are likely to become familiar with the details of their lives and notice when there’s an on-going issue. With so many chronic physical and mental illnesses out there, it’s no wonder that most of us have had a coworker with a chronic illness. If you’ve ever wondered how best to support them, you’re not alone. Here are some ways you can support your coworker whether their illness is physical or mental.

For Coworkers:

The best thing you can do for your coworker is be supportive. Here are a few ways to do that:

  1. Don’t ignore the situation: Although it may be more comfortable for you to just ignore the warning signs, it’s not very supportive. Something as simple as asking how they’re doing is enough to get a conversation started and sometimes all your coworker might need is to feel seen.

  2. Respect their privacy: Not everyone is comfortable with sharing their diagnosis or struggles with illness, and that’s okay. If they don’t want to share, you can still be supportive by checking in on them and offering to help when you notice them struggling. If they are willing to share, respect their privacy. Leave it to them to tell who they will tell. There’s nothing worse than learning your illness has become the latest office gossip.

  3. Show empathy: Empathy is putting yourself in their shoes and trying to understand what they are experiencing. Rebecca Nellis, executive director of Cancer and Careers, has some great tips on how to show empathy: “‘It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know what to say right now, but I am here and thinking about you’ or ‘I want to be here for you and I want to think about some things that I can offer that might make your life easier right now.'” She added that one thing people should not say is “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me sooner,” because this will make your co-worker feel guilty rather than cared for. […] Saying, ‘I know it’s going to be okay’ or ‘The same thing happened to someone I know and now they’re running marathons,’ might be well intended, but not be where the person is if they are feeling like things aren’t going to be okay.’”

  4. Let Your Coworker Set the Pace: Some people are very open about their struggles and accepting of help, others aren’t. Many people will only release information little by little as they gauge how you respond to it and how much they can trust you. So don’t be worried if it takes a few weeks before your coworker is ready to accept your help. The only way to know what would be most supportive to them is by listening to what they would like. Until you know what they want or how often they would appreciate help, refrain from doing things on your own or pushing them to do anything. Instead, ask if it would be helpful for you to take an assignment or if they’d like to go out to eat at lunch or if they’d like your help learning about company policies regarding accommodation. And respect their boundaries if they say no.

For Managers, Executive Directors and Leaders:

Chronic illness and sick leave absenteeism have major implications on businesses and their ability to operate properly. It’s important that leadership recognizes where employees might run into road bumps within the company and do their best to make work a safe place to be. The World Health Organization found that the most common chronic illnesses are as follows: “37% of all cases of back pain, 16% of hearing loss, 13% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 11% of asthma, 8% of injuries, 9% of lung cancer, 2% of leukaemia and 8% of depression.” On the mental side of chronic illness, the WHO found that bullying and harassment are the most commonly reported problems in the workplace. And although work is good for mental health, negative working environments lead to mental and physical health problems.

Chronic disease of any kind translates to monetary and productivity loses for every organization. The WHO found that depression and anxiety costs the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. But these organizational costs can be reduced. According to the World Health Organization, “Research has demonstrated that workplace health initiatives can help reduce sick leave absenteeism by 27% and health-care costs for companies by 26%.”

Here are a few ways you can create a more supportive environment for your employees and coworkers:

  1. Have an Open Door Policy: be available and willing to talk to your employees about their personal health and struggles. This way, you can be abreast to their struggles before they turn into emergencies

  2. Review your workplace practices and policies: make sure you allow for ample accommodations for those who may need it, and that the process for requesting and receiving these accommodations is clear, free of unnecessary red tape, and well defined.

  3. Create a supportive environment: ask your people what kind of support they would appreciate and what the organization could do better and follow through. Give space for feedback and recommendations for ways your organization can adapt and change. Offer additional training for leaders on handling employee health concerns and training to all staff on ways to help support each other

  4. Allow Flexibility: Flexibility for when someone is experiencing chronic health issues allows them to be more productive. Even something as simple as being able to work from home when needed or work only half days can make a huge difference.

  5. Promote health initiatives regularly: Encourage healthy eating and exercise. Have office health goals and biometric screenings. These are just some quick ways to promote better health in your organization.

  6. Create Employee Health Resources: Even something as simple as a document or webpage with health resources can be a major help to an employee.

  7. Have a Plan in Place for Emergencies

  8. Respect Their Privacy: not everyone wants the whole office to know about their chronic illness. Work together to find ways to explain their absence or the changes to their work environment that respect their privacy but also satisfies other’s questions.

By using these ideas we can create a safer, more supportive work environment for everyone.

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