The other evening, we were out with friends and discussing some of the people we all know who are experiencing health issues — how they were managing and how it had changed lives. Bobby looked thoughtful. He said that one of the guys in the group of 50 he manages, (I’ll call him P), has Parkinson’s Disease. P had told him about this 5 years ago when he was diagnosed but hadn’t mentioned it since. Bobby asked me if I thought this was strange.
I asked Bobby what made him bring this up. He said he didn’t know — maybe it was all the talk about people and illness. When I asked if anything about P’s performance had changed, Bobby sat back to think about it.
Bobby described the changes he’d seen. P had taken more personal time off in the past year. P had used all his vacation days, which had never happened before. And, P had refused a promotion.
When I asked Bobby if he had ever asked P how things were going with the illness, he said no. He figured it was up to P to bring it up. He didn’t want to intrude or invade P’s privacy. Then, Bobby asked me if I agreed, since it’s my ‘work’.
I said that I didn’t have enough information to know anything for sure. But in my experience, some people won’t bring up illness even after disclosure. They worry that they’ll be perceived as complaining, or worse, as unable to do their work. Or sometimes, they just figure you’ll ask if you want to know.
Bobby said he might bring it up in their next one on one meeting. He thought he’d just ask about it, in a neutral tone. Sounded good to me.
That conversation came back to me when a client talked about her boss who felt patronizing and intrusive. Clearly, there are some minefields to avoid when you bring up the topic of chronic illness with a co-worker — or particularly someone you supervise:
- Don’t bring up “illness” when you’re dealing with a problem. Wait for a time when the employee is less likely to feel that you are making assumptions because of illness.
- If you do ask about illness impact, focus on work performance rather just life in general. Your role at work is to be concerned with work.
- Ask how you can best be helpful. Don’t assume your advice is wanted or needed nor that you can guess.
What do you think? Would you find it intrusive or helpful if your boss asked you how you’re doing with your illness? What might make a difference?