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Office etiquette: Showing concern for a co-worker’s ill spouse

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in Your Office Coach

Question: “My husband had cancer surgery six weeks ago, and I have been on leave from work to take care of him. Although there are 30 people in my office, only three have contacted me to see how we’re doing. I’ve always had a good relationship with my co-workers, so I’m extremely hurt and disappointed by this treatment. I can't seem to get beyond these feelings. When I return to work, I know people will ask about my husband. Since they weren’t there when I needed support, I have no desire to discuss his health with them. How should I handle their questions?” — Angry Wife

Marie’s Answer: Although your colleagues’ silence may feel like a lack of caring, that’s not necessarily the case. Here are some points to consider:

•    In such a large group, some co-workers may feel they don’t know you well enough to be in touch. Others, realizing that this is a difficult time, may assume that contacting you would actually be intrusive. And some may be hesitant because they simply aren’t sure what to say.  

•    Many colleagues have probably requested updates about your situation from those who have spoken with you. Upon your return, these well-meaning people are likely to greet you with genuine sympathy and affection. Try to accept their sentiments as authentic and respond graciously.  

•    If you prefer not to share detailed information in response to inquiries from your co-workers, simply say, "My husband is doing much better. Thanks for asking.”  Then leave it at that.

If some people do seem insensitive or indifferent, don’t waste any emotional energy on them.  Instead, be thankful for the caring colleagues who supported you during this ordeal and also for those who warmly welcome you back.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jodette June 23, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I love all of these replies and my heart goes out to the “Angry Wife.” When my Dad passed away last year, I felt very hurt by people who did not show me support or ask how I was doing–I realized later on that I had placed unrealistic expectations on people. In our office, we are encouraged NOT to call co-workers when they are out sick or dealing with family emergencies. We have a staff of about 13 people. I think one thing we do as a staff that encourages our co-worker(s) whenever they are out sick or having a difficult time is that our staff signs a community card and we mail it to the person. This is a wonderful way to show them support and let them know they are being thought of. Now that the “Angry Wife” realizes how important it is to have the support of co-workers, even though this wasn’t done for you, you may have insight now on how to reach out to other co-workers when they are dealing with difficult circumstances at home and/or need to be out-of-the office. I agree with everyone else’s comments, though, try not to harbor anger towards your co-workers. We have two women out right now recovering from surgery and I haven’t called either one of them but I have asked those who have had contact with them how they are doing and I signed a card for them.

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Joanne June 17, 2010 at 5:52 pm

The timing on this subject is unbelievable. I too am going thru a difficult time with my son who is battling cancer for the third time. I work for a small company and am one of two people who run the office so everyone knows me quite well. I just returned to wok four days ago from spending time with my son & family during another difficult surgery. Most people in the office have been very quiet & have not approached me. I do not take it personally. I know people are uncomfortable bringing it up. They know that it is a difficult time for me & I have very hard days. But I also know that they are thinking about me & wishing me & my son the best. Before I was in this situation I know I found it hard myself to approach someone going thru a difficult time. I just remember that & know nobody is being hurtful. It is just human nature. Until someone goes thru a serious illness themselves they may never truely understand how to handle the situation. I wish everyone the best!

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Personal Beliefs June 17, 2010 at 10:07 am

Personal beliefs, I’ve been brought up to never bother anyone when they are sick, going through bad times, or asleep unless they are in need of help.

Professionally, I carry my personal beliefs with me. And as an admin who keeps in contact with a large team, I often wonder if I am doing to right thing. But I always continue to never bother anyone unless it is critical that my office needs to contact them. And lets say the person that is sick or going through hard times calls me to give me an update, I do not share personal information (only to their supervisors) unless they tell me to do so. I feel like it is their situation, and if they want to share it to others they will.

Please don’t take it personal. I believe your coworkers think they are doing you a favor by not bothering you. We are all different in how we handle these types of situation.

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Karen June 16, 2010 at 4:55 pm

First, I’m sorry about your husband and hope he’s okay now. I imagine that you both went through a lot of feelings during his illness, including anger at why this happened in the first place. Could some of that anger have been directed at coworkers simply because it had nowhere else to go? I could definitely understand how that could happen.
Marie gave an excellent answer. I would think that most of your coworkers really do care about what you went through but didn’t want to be intrusive or didn’t know what to say/how to act. I’ll bet quite a few of them asked the three that checked in on you how you were doing.
In addition, Deborah touched on something that reminded me of a work situation that happened a long time ago. In my office of about a dozen people, during one month, one woman’s husband had a heart attack & open heart surgery, another’s husband had surgery for throat cancer, our boss’s father died, one coworker’s sister had a serious toxemia scare, and I started divorce proceedings. Feeling that my problem was the least serious I kept quiet. About two months later someone outside our department asked one of my coworkers why I wasn’t wearing my wedding ring. She felt absolutely horrible that she hadn’t noticed – but hey, it had been a rough month! People had to cover for those that had to take time away from work to be with their loved ones plus deal with their own troubles. No one grumbled; each person just pitched in and did whatever needed to be done so that when those that had to take time off came back they were not overwhelmed. There are different ways people show they care.

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Joyce June 16, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Unless you’ve had a personal relationship with each and socialized with them outside the office and in your home, to label them as uncaring just because they don’t call is unfair. I would not want to bother anyone at home especially knowing that they may have a lot going on. The three that did call probably gave updates to those that asked. You should be grateful that they cared enough to give you space and respect your privacy. Even you referred to them as “co-workers” not family or friends; you should cut them some slack for things that happen outside of work. Do you know what these people are having to deal with in their personal lives? In an office of 100 only a dozen knew and only 1 called when I was spending my spare time with my mom when she was fighting/dieing of cancer. Everyone has their cross to carry. Stop being angry, be grateful you still have your husband, give your co-workers a break, and enjoy the positive relationships you have at work.

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R. Tapia June 16, 2010 at 12:44 pm

I too have dealt with a situation much like yours. But, it’s like the saying goes “Out of sight, Out of mind”, even though people don’t mean to be like this. Be thankful of the support that you get from those people that have supported you. I wonder if there is any website that has support for people that need to talk. My husband has cancer also, and he has not told his family about this. So I am the one that has to deal with everything by myself and it’s sometimes very hard not to have anyone to talk to. I sympathize with you and hope for the best for you.

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Deborah June 16, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Some people have their own personal trials and knowing about yours only makes them think of their own and their own vulnerabilities. Just try to show your strong side when you return. You will know who you can put your guard down for. The truly sincere and strong people will reach out to you. Others who are more vulnerable will be inspired by your show of strength. It will help you to focus on your job and get it done and others to get theirs done too. In the long run you will be admired and respected. A lunch companion can prove to be a confident during your struggles.

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Dana June 16, 2010 at 11:48 am

I agree w/Marie. Some co-workers may feel they don’t know you well enough to be in touch and don’t know what to say. I had a boss (very caring) who was very private about his healthcare and I chose to respect that w/out hurt feelings. I felt it was respect to him not unconcern or uncaring. I feel your co-workers want to respect your privacy as well regarding your husbands’s medical issues if you haven’t discussed it w/them. I can also understand your feelings being hurt–it’s a fine line. Since you have a great relationship w/your co-workers, you are able to discern genuine concern & care. Accept it gladly!!

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Karen June 16, 2010 at 11:43 am

Unless you personally told all of them they may not be aware of the situation. With all the legal issues around health information maybe those that know are not really at liberty to share personal health information about co-workers/families. I’ve had personal experience with this and I found that some people just don’t know what to say so they say nothing unless you bring it up first. It doesn’t mean they don’t care, they just aren’t sure what to say. I found that the people who had personally dealt with cancer were the most comfortable in supporting me and understood that sometimes you want to talk about it and sometimes you don’t. One of my co-workers pass on a button to me that says”Cancer Sucks”, I hope I never have to pass it on to anyone else, but I will if I have to just so they know they aren’t alone. I hope your husband is doing well and your return to work is positive.

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Beano June 16, 2010 at 11:35 am

Our HR director has actually discouraged interactions with staff who are ill or have illness in the family unless that staff member has volunteered the information, apparently due to HIPPA concerns.
That seems a bit overboard to me but she maintains her position.

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Teresa June 16, 2010 at 11:27 am

That was well put there has offten been times I just dont know what to say or how. I also felt why bother them at a difficult time like this. Good comments back.

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