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Nearly 90 percent of people in the workplace say they’re unsure how much or what kind of emotional support to offer a co-worker who’s living with a chronic condition. Getty Images
  • A new survey from Cancer and Careers found that 88 percent of people have concerns about their ability to support a co-worker with a serious medical condition.
  • And 89 percent believe management could have created and fostered a more supportive work environment for colleagues with chronic illness.
  • Experts say companies can improve support for employees with chronic conditions by raising awareness and properly training leaders as well as other employees.

When a colleague becomes chronically or seriously ill, it can be difficult to know what to say and do.

“It’s so hard with a co-worker to know what to do when something like this happens even if you lived it before, and it’s so easy — in a totally unintentional way — to say or do the wrong thing or think you’re doing the right thing, but you’re actually adding pressure to the person,” Rebecca Nellis, executive director of Cancer and Careers, told Healthline.

The nonprofit Nellis works for is dedicated to empowering people with cancer to thrive in their workplace.

The organization recently conducted a survey of 1,000 American working adults, and discovered that 88 percent of respondents have concerns about their ability to support a co-worker with a serious medical condition.

The most common concerns reported included:

  • how much or what kind of emotional support to offer
  • how much to ask about their co-worker’s medical condition or status
  • what kind of work-related help to offer

“Clearly, there’s a gap between the needs of those with chronic illness in the workplace and the support being provided by co-workers and management — and much of it’s due to a lack of awareness and training,” Lynn Taylor, workplace expert and author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job,” told Healthline.

Taylor and Nellis say the following are ways to support your co-worker.

Simply telling your co-worker you’re thinking of them is a good start, said Nellis.

“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,’” said Nellis.

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.

Taylor advised to try and be aware of when a co-worker wants their privacy and when they want to talk about their condition.

“Gauge your approach based on their reactions,” she said.

Nellis agreed, and said people should be cautious when sharing stories about other people you know who’ve had the same condition until you understand whether the person is open to hearing them or not.

“If you don’t know the person’s preferences yet, 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,” said Nellis.

Just because a co-worker tells you about their condition doesn’t mean they want others to know, too.

“Not everyone discloses at work, so if someone in your work world shares something with you about a health crisis, it’s important that you assume that you’re the only person they are telling… unless they tell you otherwise,” said Nellis.

“People have very strong — appropriately-so — feelings about how wide personal information should go and it’s incredibly important to think about someone’s privacy preferences,” she added.

Rather than telling a co-worker you can do whatever they need, making a short list of job duties you’re willing to take over is more practical and less stressful for the person you’re trying to help, said Nellis.

“It’s super natural to want to sound like you’re so available and ready for action… but the problem with that is it puts the responsibility on the person who is already dealing with their own illness and having to figure out what that means in a whole bunch of areas of their lives to come up with something for you to do to help you feel good about helping them,” she said.

Avoiding your co-worker or ignoring their situation may feel safest, but Taylor said it’s best to think about how you’d like to be treated if you were in their place.

“As with many interactions in the workplace, when in doubt, the best course of action is kindness and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you’re not sure what to say or do, wait until you’ve done a little more research — or have spoken to those in the know,” she said.

The Cancer and Careers survey revealed that American workers are looking for more support from their leadership with 59 percent stating they’re not confident that management knows how to support ill employees.

Of those workers who had worked with someone diagnosed with cancer, 90 percent believed that management could have done more to be more supportive.

Other findings included:

  • 45 percent believe management could have provided more workplace accommodations, such as flexible schedules, or special equipment and technology.
  • 37 percent believe management could have created and fostered a more supportive work environment.
  • 35 percent believe they could’ve had greater consideration of their co-worker’s privacy preferences.
  • 33 percent believe they could’ve developed better company policies to support them.
  • 16 percent reported that the way a colleague with cancer was managed made them less loyal toward their company.

“It’s not terribly shocking that co-workers don’t really know what to do themselves, but their lack of confidence in their leadership is a moment worth pausing on,” said Nellis.

She added that the following are ways management and leadership can help support employees.

1. Look at the existing benefits, policies, and procedures

Nellis advised making sure current policies work effectively and as they were originally intended.

“People aren’t just driven by a salary [but the whole package]. What do you have in place already? If there are gaps, are there some things you can do to enhance those processes so people know better what to do if a [co-worker gets ill]?” she said.

If your company policies are outdated, Nellis said it’s time to re-evaluate.

“Make sure you’re on trend with the way the work world is evolving and certainly the way other players in your industry are,” said Nellis.

For instance, she said some companies offer leave banks that allow employees to collect paid time off so if they need extended time for illness they can draw from the pool.

2. Communicate policies

Because it’s hard to remember everything that’s available to you at work when you’re in crisis and trying to manage your health, Nellis said it’s helpful if companies regularly communicate their benefits.

“Companies can think about [how they communicate through] internal communication,” she said.

For instance, they may consider tweeting new or updated benefits, or reminders of existing benefits.

“How are you making sure your employees understand the important things [set in place] as safety nets if something were to happen and they need it?” said Nellis.

3. Train managers on what to do

Ensuring managers are properly prepared to help a co-worker who confides in them is crucial, said Nellis.

“If someone is diagnosed with an illness and comes to [a manager who doesn’t know how to support them] first, that can undo any policies and communication [processes] already in place,” said Nellis. “That’s what co-workers are witnessing and that’s what employees themselves are witnessing… we don’t take time to train someone on managing someone as a whole person.”

Taylor agreed, noting that management can do the following:

  • Let your colleague suggest how you can best support them; don’t make assumptions.
  • Consider ways to make their work more productive by offering flextime and telecommuting.
  • Set aside time to discuss actions other team members can take to help their co-worker.
  • Know what medical information is to be shared and with whom.
  • With permission from your co-worker, establish a point person to provide updates on the status of the person’s health.

“Because the situation is challenging for the individual suffering, and colleagues are unsure of how to handle it, management should take the lead to ensure the workplace is productive, friendly, and cooperative,” said Taylor.

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.

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