Responding to a Terminally Ill Employee: An Organizational Intervention

-How to deal with the stress in the workplace caused by a very sensitive issue.
This question was originally presented by and answered for WorkforceOnline.com

Q. A colleague has throat cancer and all his colleagues know that the treatment has not been going well. In fact, he has been given about a year to live. He is very popular, friendly and competent (in fact, a key man) and wants to continue working as long as possible. How should a case like this be handled? Management has just realized that a lot of knowledge transfer needs to happen, for one thing. This organization is pretty much like a caring family with most of us here 10-30 years, including him. His work is his life.

A. In such an intimate work setting, this poignant situation deserves and requires a thoughtful and comprehensive emotional support and problem-solving strategy. Initially, I''ll focus on the manager, and then I''ll expand to a systems approach to intervention. Consider these steps:

1. The manager approaches the individual with throat cancer. The manager shares with the individual with cancer how his illness and determination to keep working, as well as their long-standing relationship, is a source of admiration or inspiration for himself personally as well as for Mr. C''s colleagues. (I''ll call him Mr. C; while clearly this individual is more than his cancer, using the letter C prevents us from denying the reality of his illness.) His condition is also a source of anticipatory loss and sadness for company personnel as well.

The manager should explain that he would like support from the EAP and from HR to assist in the following areas:

a. personal help for the manager on how to handle his emotions and how to manage through this unusual and challenging time,

b. guidance for helping other employees process their emotions,

c. help effecting a knowledge transfer from Mr. C to relevant personnel and

d. if Mr. C would like any emotional support or approaching end of life planning guidance, you (the manager) want the company to be in the best possible position to provide the necessary help.

2. If Mr. C is willing, schedule a meeting with Mr. C, yourself, an EAP counselor and an HR representative.

3. This meeting needs to acknowledge the wide range of emotions, issues and people touched by Mr. C, and to reach consensus on a goal-and time-oriented strategy for meeting key objectives outlined in #1.

4. Once consensus is achieved, I would plan to have a meeting with this individual and with the above planning team and the company employees. The purpose will be to: a. in an official public forum, acknowledge Mr. C''s condition; allow Mr. C to share any personal remarks as well as his determination to keep working. (If Mr. C can use a little humor, e.g., telling his colleagues "you''re not getting rid of me so quickly; I''m going to be around for awhile to keep bugging you," that would be wonderful.),

b. allow Mr. C and colleagues to begin a formal grief process that is facilitated by a trained counselor. (The counselor might explain the grief process, especially the array of emotions -- from sadness and anxiety to anger and spirituality -- that may be experienced), and

c. have HR and Mr. C''s manager assist in eliciting ideas from Mr. C and his colleagues regarding the knowledge transfer process.

5. Before the meeting ends, the EAP counselor (or external counselor) should summarize the grief process issues and offer his or her services to anyone who might want additional assistance.

6. A follow-up debriefing with the manager and Mr. C and the EAP counselor is recommended. This debriefing might also entail individual sessions. Also, Mr. C should be offered the opportunity to bring in (any) key family members for family and/or individual grief counseling sessions.

7. As a follow-up to the large group meeting (#4.), a knowledge transfer group should be created to set up objectives, action plans and guidelines.

8. Finally, there will likely be a need, in some fashion, to replicate the above step-by-step procedures on a formal and on an as needed basis depending on the deteriorating health of Mr. C. If it can be anticipated, a few months before Mr. C will likely stop working, I would give all parties extra support and enable all to continue with the individual and group grief process. Once again, the guidance of a professional counselor is vital.

9. Upon Mr. C''s death, in addition to funeral attendance and sending a company note/remembrance to the family, perhaps a company scholarship fund can be established in Mr. C''s honor.

Hopefully, this outline will help all involved feel a bit more fortified to confront personal vulnerability, to reach out emotionally and to strengthen interpersonal and communal bonds, to allow the company to preserve Mr. C''s legacy, to support Mr. C''s termination process and to help all parties...Practice Safe Stress!

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