Leading With Compassion When a Teammate Has a Terminal Illness

When an employee is experiencing a health crisis, it impacts their colleagues as well. Leaders must support everyone affected, with sensitivity and professionalism.

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When an employee is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the complexities of workplace management deepen significantly. It’s not merely about handling the practicalities of business continuity or addressing the aftermath of a loss; it’s also about navigating the prolonged, emotionally charged period that precedes it. Some employees may choose to continue working through a terminal illness to maintain a sense of normalcy, purpose, or financial stability, which can be crucial for their psychological well-being during such a challenging time. This journey, marked by uncertainty and emotional upheaval, demands a compassionate, thoughtful approach from managers.

A colleague’s health crisis has far-reaching implications; it permeates the entire team and alters the dynamics of the workplace, often leaving a profound impact on morale and productivity. Managers, therefore, can find themselves in a pivotal role, where they must balance the emotional support of a valued team member with maintaining a stable and supportive work environment for all.

Drawing from the candid, deeply personal experiences of 21 employees who have navigated these challenging waters, our latest research — forthcoming in the journal BMJ Leader — aims to shed light on the nuanced roles managers play in these scenarios. Our study sought to understand the strategies that foster a culture of compassion and resilience in order to ensure that the needs of both the individual and the team are met with sensitivity and professionalism. In 60-minute interviews, we asked participants about their experiences, the challenges they faced, and the strategies they found most effective in supporting individuals with a terminal illness. The insights gained from these discussions form the basis of our six recommendations for managers facing similar circumstances, with the aim of providing a balanced, informed approach to confronting an impending loss in the workplace.

1. Engage in open and sensitive communication.

Start by establishing a dialogue that respects the employee’s privacy and confidentiality. Managers should create an environment where the employee feels comfortable sharing their needs and preferences regarding their work situation. One successful approach reported by respondents involved regular, private check-ins to offer support and address any changes in the employee’s condition or requirements.

The impact of open and sensitive communication cannot be overstated.

To further enhance this communication, actively listen and respond with empathy and understanding.


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Comment (1)
Stuart Roehrl
Very thoughtful and well done article.  You took on a difficult but important topic that might have otherwise been avoided.  
Note to editors - why did you switch to Times New Roman for your font on the headings?  To be completely honest with you, as for me it looks sort of choppy aesthetically.
Stuart Roehrl