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:

  1. how much or what kind of emotional support to offer
  2. how much to ask about their co-worker’s medical condition or status
  3. 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.

Show empathy

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.

Let them guide you

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.

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