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Coping with an Employee's Serious Illness

It is always unfortunate news when you learn that an employee you know and work with has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Americans are now facing a real world health crisis. For example, in 2017, almost 50% of deaths in the US were attributed to heart disease and cancer. So what do you do when you find out someone you work with has been affected by one of these or any other serious illness? Our first instinct is to want to help the person in a kind and compassionate manner.

Americans spend a large amount of their waking hours at work, building special bonds and relationships with coworkers. How do you envision you might feel if someone in your office disclosed to you that they have a serious or life threatening illness? According to the American Psychological Association (APA) you may feel depressed, physically ill, stricken with grief, and more. So what can you do? The first step would be to express your concern and care. If your coworker has indicated ways in which support would be helpful, be sure to lend them a helping hand. A supportive work environment allows everyone to cope and contribute in a positive way without feeling helpless. Being a friend, and not only a colleague, can be one of the best ways to help.

From a business perspective, there are concerns that need to be addressed by a manager or HR professional. Before any conversations take place at work, it is important that the employee first speak with their doctor regarding their health and how it may affect their performance. Also, it is up to the employee to choose what they disclose in terms of their medical condition, so let them take the lead in any discussions regarding how they feel, how their work may be affected, and how the work may affect them. You must also maintain HIPAA compliance, which states that employers have to protect the privacy of an employee’s medical data, so any information learned from the employee is not to be shared with the rest of the staff. This conversation between the employee and HR will help determine what decisions need to be made.

An employee dealing with a serious medical condition could have several options available. If your business meets the requirements to be compliant with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the employee may be able to take an unpaid leave of absence of up to 12 weeks (with full group health coverage) and their job and salary would be protected. They may also qualify for short or long term disability if this is offered by the company and/or state. A short-term disability leave can be between a few weeks to a few months, and is determined by the severity of the ailment affecting the employee and the insurance plan. During a short-term leave, an employee could receive anywhere from 40%-60% of their gross weekly income. A long-term leave usually happens when short-term leave has expired or the duration of the leave will be longer than anticipated. During a long-term leave, an employee could receive anywhere from 50%-60% of their gross weekly income. An employee may also request that reasonable accommodations be made by the employer. If they are working a position in which their productivity is negatively affected by their illness, it may be appropriate to offer them an alternative assignment (if there is one), or temporarily divert some of the challenging responsibilities associated with their job to an equally qualified employee.

As an employer, it is important to be compliant on these matters but also empathetic and as supportive as you can be. If you find yourself in this unfortunate circumstance, always remember to put the person first and business operations second.

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