Wanting to Help Is Natural; Knowing How Is Difficult
When a coworker is diagnosed with cancer, your first reaction is probably one of helplessness. Then you wonder, “What can I do to help?”
Preparation for Deciding What to Do
How you help a coworker, and what you offer to do for that colleague, will depend on the closeness of the relationship. If you have worked together for years and become friends, that bond will be different than you have with someone you have only a professional relationship with.
What to Do
- Go beyond the usual “Let me know if I can do anything.” Although that is a well-meaning offer, the usual response will probably be “Ok”, followed by no request. And even if the coworker needs something, this means they have to come up with the request and figure out if you are agreeable to it. It’s much better to offer your plan for helping. Something like: “I can fill you in on office meetings every Friday during my lunch hour” or “I can drop off the mail at the post office every Monday, if you wish.”
- Offer to reduce their work strain — even if the coworker is still taking time off for treatment. The key here is to ask — and get — permission. You might ask: “Is there a special customer you are worried about? May I call him for you, to let him know he’s still in good hands?” Or: “Is there something on your desk that’s undone that is bothering you, and could I tackle that for you?” Or you could ask: “What work project is causing you the most stress right now? Let’s make a plan for how I could help you reduce that stress.” If the colleague will be out of work for an extended time, you might offer to forward important emails. Once you start helping, it may become easier for your coworker to ask for work-related help.
- Consider gift baskets. What goes in it, of course, depends on your relationship with your colleague. You could include work-related gadgets such as calculators or software — something to help your colleague think about, and look forward to, returning to work. Or you could go the comfort route, including comfortable slippers and an iTunes or Amazon gift card.
- Never underestimate the power of a card. A simple “We miss you” goes a long way to lifting spirits.
- Offer to take over a routine task. This could be a weekly errand — work-related or not — that needs to be done. It could be writing a weekly recap work report, picking up their dry cleaning, groceries or helping out with other chores.
- Offer to help find useful resources. Find out the need of the moment — that could be a hospital bed for home, the name of a doctor for a second opinion, or leads for a temporary live-in babysitter.
- Offer to take a walk with your coworker. Whether the colleague accepts depends on their energy level and whether he or she is in shape to get physical activity. But it’s helpful to offer, as the activity puts the focus back on “normal.”
What Not to Do
- Do not drop in. This applies to the coworker’s home and the hospital, even if you hear he or she is doing well. Make sure to call or text ahead.
- Do not visit your coworker if you are sick — or getting sick. If you have a sniffle or tickle in your throat and are trying to decide if it’s allergies or a cold, stay home. While many people go to work with a cold, a cold could be a big deal for cancer patients.
- Do not deliver food without asking first — and letting them know exactly what it is. You wouldn't want to take meatloaf to a household of vegetarians or a fancy nut mix to the hospital when your coworker is on a bland diet. Try this: “I’m making chili. May I bring over a pot for you?”
- Do not engage in long phone calls — no matter how much you think your colleague loves to hear your reports about work. Fatigue is common among survivors even after treatment, so give your coworker a chance to rest and heal.
- Don’t be so afraid of doing the wrong thing that you do nothing — especially if you’re eager to help your colleague. Diffuse your stress by admitting your awkwardness. Try saying: “I don’t know if this is the right thing to do, but….”