Crucial Conversations QA

Health Challenges at Work—How to Create A New Normal

Dear Crucial Skills,

I was just diagnosed with a non-contagious medical condition. Now I know why I have been so fatigued these past months. Though my condition can be life-threatening, after having a pity party, I’ve decided to move forward and be as positive as I can. I told my supervisor and co-workers about my diagnosis but now feel they are avoiding me and showing me pity. Some people are not giving me the work they used to give me, and others have actually taken work away from me. It may be they are trying to “ease the burden,” but I just want to move forward, be busy, and continue to be a productive member of the team. I’m second-guessing my decision to come forward with my condition and the added stress actually aggravates my condition. It’s a vicious cycle! Any help would be appreciated.

Signed,
Moving Forward

Dear Moving Forward,

I am sorry to hear about the diagnosis. It sounds like you have gone through some overwhelming emotions as you’ve adjusted to this new reality. It also sounds like you have arrived at a remarkable place in determining to embrace life on these new terms. Congratulations on that. I admire your resilience and trust you’ll find strength in this decision.

I would not fault you for sharing the news with close colleagues. To me, life is about connection—and withholding such profound information from friends can only serve to make you less connected at a time when you need friends most. The challenge now is to negotiate the new relationship this information is provoking. That’s the conversation you need to have. I offer three thoughts that I hope are of use:

1. Let them process their feelings. Like you, your colleagues are going through a process of adapting to the new information about you. Clearly, you deserve much more consideration than they do under the circumstances. However, it’s helpful to know that they are being affected, and it will take time for them to integrate this reality and connect with you in a way that accommodates it. I don’t offer any of this to suggest that it is your job to service their emotional needs—you’ve got plenty to manage on your own. But perhaps being aware that their current behavior is not likely to be their final behavior can help you be patient as they go through their own fear, sadness, and anxiety.

2. Make it discussable. Many of your colleagues are dealing in the realm of mystery at this point. All they know is you have a medical condition. That’s all. They don’t know how it is affecting you physically, emotionally, or interpersonally. Should they lighten your load or treat you the same? Should they give you space or smother you with support? Should they pretend they don’t know about the diagnosis or inquire for details? In most situations like this, those around you are paralyzed with uncertainty. They feel awkward and incompetent and tend to respond to this anxiety with hand-wringing. They try to guess what you want or need—or shrink back to a safe distance to avoid their own discomfort. You have it in your power to end all of that. All you need to do is make the situation discussable. Find a medium that works for you: email, a private blog, perhaps even a team meeting. Take a few minutes to catch people up not just about the physiology of what’s going on with you, but the psychology. Tell them how you’re feeling. Tell them how that varies by day or week.

Then . . .

3. Teach them what works for you. Here’s the best part of my advice for you—you have enormous influence at this very moment. What your colleagues crave most is certainty. They simply want to know how to show up for you. They’ll likely respond to most any request you make. Tell them what questions you’d like or not like. Tell them how you’d like to be treated and not treated. Tell them how you would and wouldn’t like to communicate with them about future changes in your health. For example, will you tire of repeating the same update to everyone? If so, you might want to create a private blog and encourage people who are interested to get information from there so you don’t have to rehash the same story forty-three times at work. Or, you may ask a trusted friend to be the source of information for the group. Whatever works for you is likely to work for them. It’s up to you to teach them.

I wish you health and happiness in this coming phase. May your troubles be eclipsed by increased focus on what matters most and greater intimacy with friends and loved ones.

Warmly,
Joseph