Be the Boss Over Cancer

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If you're like most employees, your boss plays a central role in your work life. The boss isn't just the person who gives work assignments, sets deadlines, approves vacations and conducts your annual review. Often, as an employee, you look to your boss for motivation and inspiration. Your boss may also be your mentor.

So when your boss is diagnosed with cancer, the entire dynamic of the workplace is likely to change. Your reaction may be confusing and stressful. Here, workers who have been through the experience, as well as psychologists and an HR expert, offer insight and tips on how to cope.

When the News Comes

When the boss announces a diagnosis of cancer, whether in a meeting, one-on-one or in an email, the response from workers is often shock, concern, sadness and more. "My reaction was tremendous sadness, fear about what was going to happen,'' says Brie Caffey, whose boss, now passed away, had to tell her and coworkers that her breast cancer had returned. "I just wanted to fix it," Caffey says.

Hearing that the boss has cancer can evoke a variety of emotions, but it always upsets the hierarchy of the workplace, says Helen Friedman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in St. Louis. You're used to the boss being in control, but cancer makes that impossible, at least temporarily. Your own reaction will depend partially on the relationship you have with the boss, says David Blustein, PhD, professor of counseling psychology at Boston College. But two basic and common reactions, he finds, are insecurity and anxiety. "We tend to look to the boss for a sense of security," he says.

Concern over your boss and the cancer diagnosis can lead to somewhat of a swapping of roles, says Ann Plunkett, a human resources consultant and employment lawyer who founded WorkPlace Partners, an HR consultant firm in St. Louis. Workers, she says, begin to take care of the boss, whether that translates to taking on more work or being a listening ear.

As Treatment Progresses

As treatment progresses, other emotions can creep in.

  • Guilt. This one may come out of the blue, as Caffey knows. It became difficult, she says, to ask for time off or to seek approval for work-related improvement courses. Asking felt like an imposition, she says. As she puts it: "How can we ask for a day off to play when she is so ill?" But Friedman points out the flip side: workers who don't make time for themselves aren't going to be helpful and productive long-term. They may be compromising their own health, further adding to the burden in the workplace. "Self-care is still important," she says.
  • Feelings of Abandonment. Workers will also often feel as if they have lost their champion. Let the boss know, Friedman suggests. Say something direct, such as "Things aren't the same without you." But don't give him the impression everything is falling apart.
  • Anxiety. The smaller the company, the more a worker may wonder: If the boss is too sick to come back soon--or ever--am I out of a job?

Tips on Coping

How difficult your worklife will continue to be depends partially on how the boss decides to deal with the cancer news. If the boss is a private person, and continues to be about the cancer, that can be one of the most difficult scenarios. But even so, workers can suggest ways to make the road smoother for all, whether your boss is an ''open book'' type or plays it close to the vest.

  • Ask for a point person. Ask your boss to appoint a contact person in the office, someone who can keep the rest of you informed about the boss' progress and treatment status, Freidman suggests. That will cut down on the number of emails and phone calls, as well as reduce the rumor mill, saving everyone time and energy.
  • Find out what information to give the ''outside world.'' Ask your boss how you should answer inquiries from clients or customers. Does he want a simple: "He's on medical leave" or something more?
  • Get a to-do list that's prioritized, with deadlines. Any feeling of being in control can help everyone's state of mind. If your boss can't manage it, ask him who to ask.
  • Find out from the boss how often health inquiries are welcome.
  • Cut the boss some slack. You can expect him to be more tired, more impatient and perhaps more emotional, Friedman says. It can be easier to take this if you remember your boss is experiencing a major blow to his identity, Friedman says. The more he loves his work, the truer this probably will be.
  • Ask before helping. If you like the boss, a natural inclination is to offer to stay late, take on extra work or even drop off food to his house. Ask first. That shows respect for boundaries, Friedman says. While the boss may love your baked goods, his wife or partner may not want to deal with work colleagues.
  • Educate yourself about cancer. This may help, especially if you're feeling anxious. Plunkett works with The Wellness Community and often refers people there for cancer education.

Saying Goodbye & Letting Go

Losing a boss to cancer, especially if the relationship has been close, can be similar to losing a family member, Blustein says. Letting your boss know how much you appreciate her guidance, input--or whatever you value the most--can help, he says. He knows this first-hand. "I lost a boss about 8 years after I left a job," he says. That boss was one of his mentors, and it struck him that he didn't have a chance to relay his appreciation. At that time, Blustein says, he took action. "After he died, I then wrote to every single mentor and boss," he says.

Expressing appreciation does soften the blow, says Hustin Franzwa, who works with Brie Caffey. She was on her way to a college class midterm when she heard her boss's health was declining. She got herself excused and focused on something she felt more important: writing and delivering a letter of appreciation. She got it to her in time. "I guess it was my way of getting some closure." The next months were still difficult, she says, but knowing her boss knew how much she was appreciated helped greatly, she says.