Support 101

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In my consulting, working with employees through difficult times in their lives, including medical and disability issues, I come across a lot of great techniques to support others during a personal crisis. In addition, I have witnessed some (usually well-meaning) actions that don’t help, and actually can make a bad situation worse. For an employee who is facing a devastating medical challenge or serious accident, or that of a family member, support from management and coworkers can be the difference between getting through a tough time and coming back to work with a renewed sense of appreciation and engagement, and toiling through a crisis feeling alone and disengaging from work in a way that is neither good for the employee or for his/her team and employer.

Sometimes employees share full details of a crisis with their coworkers, seeking understanding and help from the people they spend the majority of their lives with. It is a natural reaction for the team to express support initially, but then begin to worry about how the work will get done, and even to withdraw from the employee in crisis and realign work immediately. This is a mistake. A more nuanced reaction is in order, and managers and teammates should take their cues from the employee and allow him/her to dictate what is reasonable, while providing a safety net in case additional help is needed. If someone is still at work and wanting to be engaged and productive, we shouldn’t strip that from the employee, but rather should wait in the wings and only come in to offer help when that support is truly needed. To remove responsibility and meaningful work from an employee without them requesting assistance can make that person feel like their relevance is diminished and that they are being written off as “too sick to work” when they are still there, contributing important forward motion to the team.

Often, employees in crisis worry that they will be marginalized and ejected from the team during the time when they are unable to work, because they understand how important their contributions are and they worry that without them there, someone else will need to take their place, and they will no longer be needed. For this reason, it’s very important that managers clearly articulate their desire to have the employee back at work just as soon as they feel ready, and to check in on a regular basis to let the employee know that their presence is missed and their team is looking forward to seeing them again. That said, this message should not be that there is a lot of work to do and that the team is falling behind because the employee is away, or that pressure is being brought to bear on the employee to force them to return to work before it’s medically appropriate. Rather, the message should be that the employee is in the team’s thoughts and that they want to see him/her back at work when the time is right.

Managers who are aware of one of their team members’ illness and impending absence may have trouble answering questions from the team about what is going on. I have often heard concerns from managers about how to communicate with their teams in a way that helps them understand the impact, but also protect the privacy of the employee in crisis. The right answer, I often advise, is to be clear about the work status of the employee, without communicating details that don’t contribute to the team’s need to plan for work while the employee is out. Often the communication is simply, “Joe Doe is on Short Term Disability/FMLA leave beginning today, and he is expected to return in six weeks, so we will be covering his work during that time. I want you to know that Joe is okay and is looking forward to getting back to work as soon as possible.”

Coworkers who are aware of more detailed information because the employee has chosen to share that may be wondering how they can support their teammate. Here are a few easy ideas:

·       Listen. Say, “I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through this. How are you feeling?”

·       Help. Instead of asking, “Is there anything I can do?” mention something specific, like, “Can I pick up your kids for a playdate?” or “How about I bring by dinner tomorrow night?” If you don’t know your teammate well enough to visit the home, give a gift card to a local restaurant.

·       Stay in Touch. If you are close enough to have your teammate’s cell phone number, call or text each week or two to check in to say hello and let him/her know you care.

Sometimes well-meaning coworkers, friends and even family will do things they think are helpful, but actually aren’t. Here are a few things to avoid:

·       Making it about you. Telling long, drawn-out stories about how you once had an aunt who had the same problem…it’s fine if there was an inspirational outcome and you want to lift your coworker’s spirits, but otherwise, just offer support and a caring, listening ear instead of monopolizing the conversation chatting about yourself when your teammate is the one who needs help.

·       Offering prayers or saying anything about “God’s will” unless you are already sure that is welcome. Some people are not religious, and although offering prayers makes YOU feel better, your coworker may just feel uncomfortable about how to respond. Plus, even if they believe in it, they may feel like God’s will kind of sucks right now. Instead, think of saying, “I am hoping for a quick recovery for you-I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”

·       Sending them crackpot therapies like juice fasting, coffee enemas and crystal healing, in an effort to “make sure they know what will cure them.” If you want to give a referral for a great massage therapist to help your coworker stay in balance during healing, by all means do so. If your coworker asks for your advice, feel free to give it. But telling your teammate that conventional medicine is harmful, or trying to hijack what is already a complicated treatment process for them, is selfish and counterproductive. Keep it to yourself.

·       Avoiding your coworker. If you don’t know what to say, don’t avoid the issue and pretend your friend isn’t going through something tough and risk contributing to their feelings of isolation. It’s always okay to say, “I don’t know what to say. But I want you to get better, and I care about you.”

Most people are very caring and want to be supportive. They don’t intentionally do things to stress out people in crisis and waste their energy when they need 100% of it for recovery. Respecting employees’ privacy, treating them with dignity, ensuring they have an ongoing opportunity to contribute at work as they are able, and providing them with a caring support network are all ways to effectively help a coworker through a crisis. In addition, avoiding the things that don’t help, and focusing on the things that do, can help effectively support employees through crisis and get them back where they want to be, in life and at work!

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