I've just learned that a co-worker has been diagnosed with a serious health problem. How can I support him?
When a colleague comes down with a serious illness, it can have a huge impact on people in the office, who often struggle with knowing how to react. Though they mean well, they can often miss their mark in helping in the best ways possible. However, I can suggest several steps that might make it easier for you and your fellow co-workers.
First, respect the ill person's privacy. Let him decide if and when he wants to talk about his health and to whom. Second, if he does open up, avoid saying things like "I know how you feel" unless you've had the same experience with the illness. Better to simply ask, "What are you feeling?" and acknowledge his emotions without any judgment, whether they be fear, anger, turmoil, or sadness.
The next step in helping is to offer any practical assistance he may require – for example, transportation to and from doctors, household chores, and duties at the office, all of which can be overwhelming to him. Be sure to let him regularly know this offer is not a one-time deal, but part of an ongoing willingness to support him in a trying time. While you should consistently offer support, always let him decide if he wants your help and how much of it he desires, even if he sometimes rebuffs you. Finally, try to focus on business as usual so that he doesn't feel like his illness defines all of who he is and what he does.
, organizational psychologist, is the president of management-consulting company Lumpkin & Associates in Fairhope, AL. Need answers? Email your career-related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org