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The Manners of Illness

By Gwen Helbush, cwc, Where To Start, Wedding Management

I have been thinking about our health, how we take it for granted until it fails us, how our failing health affects the people around us.  Our families and personal friends will be affected and for the most part, they know us well enough to behave in a way that is appropriate and helpful.

What about the people we work with, we may forget that our situation will affect them too.  When facing a difficult health issue, it is okay to pull away and focus on yourself.  In fact, it is necessary, you must take care of yourself, but that doesn’t mean you forget that there are other people in the world, individuals who care and want to help.

Illness or injuries do not excuse bad manners it may explain them, but it does not excuse them nor do they give us an excuse to be rude by omission.

Lately, I have been faced with colleagues who have had health concerns, and because of my experiences, I get calls from people with questions, because they simply don’t know how to behave around someone dealing with a life threatening illness.  The most common things I hear are “I don’t know what to say to him/her” or “I’m worried about how this will affect our business, but I don’t know how to approach him/her about my concerns, I don’t want to be insensitive.”

The tricky thing about failing health is most of us don’t handle it very well, it always affects our behavior, but no two people react the same way, which means there are no rules of conduct.  Here are a few things you can do when faced with illness or injury in the workplace.

•    Don’t ignore it, but don’t focus on it.  Acknowledge by saying “Thank you for trusting me with your diagnosis; I’m sorry you have to go through this; please let me know how I can help.”  Then let them come to you if they need anything, it is best not to keep asking about their health if they want to talk about it; they will.  As much as you want to help don’t push, they may not need help, or may not know yet what is required.
•    Be honest.  If you have concerns about business, talk to them. Start the conversation this way: “I know you have a lot to deal with, and your health comes first.  I want to support you, the best way for me to help is for us to talk about how your illness will affect the business we do together and how can I contribute to minimizing the impact on you and the business”.

•    Try to keep things as normal as possible.  It is a sad fact of human nature that when we know someone is ill or injured, we treat them as if their IQ has failed along with their health or that they are utterly incapable of doing anything, we mean well but it doesn’t help.  Remember they are the same person; just with a new challenge, and that is enough for them to deal with, they need us to be as normal as we can so they can feel safe in asking for help when they need it.  

And finally don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t react perfectly, this is complicated stuff.

If you care for your colleagues, and I know you do, then just be honest, open and loving, no matter what they are going through they’ll know you care.