How to help a colleague suffering from illness?

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Working in an office environment is a strange part of modern life. In many ways, we are competing with the people on our team. We judge the amount of work they do and compare our own performance to determine if we deserve a promotion or a raise more than they do. It is a natural thing and while there is nothing wrong with it, it can become an issue. One of the most difficult situations to navigate in the workplace is when your colleague is suffering from a chronic illness. While you want to support them you don’t want to step on their toes or undermine them. It can be tricky to navigate. Here is how to do it.

The first thing to understand is no matter the disease everyone will deal with it differently. We can not give you one rule for people dealing with cancer and another rule for people dealing with constant migraines. The reality is that there are no certainties when it comes to these diseases or the people who suffer from them so you must treat each case individually. 

The first step is to be empathetic. Put yourself in their shoes and try and understand their circumstances. Choose your words wisely. While you may feel you are being supportive by saying “I wish you had told me quicker” they may feel guilty because of it. So don’t put any expectations on them until they put them on themselves. 

The most common reaction of people is to try and relate. Telling a story of how your relative overcame a serious disease and how you know they will be fine may feel like an empowering conversation but you don’t know where their headspace is. That may be the worst thing for them to hear if they are feeling particularly low that day. Try and gauge how they are feeling and just show that you are there for them. A simple gesture like telling them you are thinking of them may be enough.

Overall it is best to let them guide your response but not to place any burdens on them. For example, it is a great idea to say “if you need help with anything, just let me know, I am here to help” but doing just this actually puts work on them. They are already exhausted from everything else happening and now they have to think about you and how they can find things that you can help with. Instead, follow up that act by sending them a list of the things you are happy to do for them during this time and tell them to just let you know. If they are due to make a big presentation offering to help may be the perfect thing or they may feel like it is the one thing they still want to achieve so offer in a wide variety of areas, not just the good stuff.

One of the most important things at this difficult time is to respect their privacy. An office is a place of rampant gossiping. This area is off-limits. Treat whatever they tell you as if you are the only one who knows and you should discuss it with no one else unless you have a genuine concern.

One area you may be able to help with is to talk to management. If someone is suffering from an illness they may not feel comfortable asking for a more flexible schedule. You could talk to your boss and suggest implementing more flexible processes to make things better. Again don’t talk to your boss unless you are certain they are aware of the situation. If they are not, there is a reason they have not been told and it is none of your business. 

It is a difficult thing to navigate in the workplace but try your best to help and not crowd someone. Assume nothing and have an open heart in all that you do and you will do well.