When a Co-worker Has a Mysterious Illness

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty

Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.

“I’m having a medical issue and will need to take a few days off,” the email read. It was the second time in a few months that my former colleague — let’s call her Audrey — had sent a message like this to our team at work, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Get some rest”? “Feel better soon”? She was clearly going through something but wouldn’t say what.

To make matters more awkward, our boss replied-all with a terse “Ok” — I could almost hear his annoyed huff that Audrey was out again. Someone else wrote back, “Are you alright?!” Seeking a happy medium, I finally settled on, “I’m so sorry. Let me know if I can help with anything.”

Treating a colleague with respect, empathy, and the appropriate level of concern when they’re out sick can be delicate. It’s particularly hard when you don’t know what the problem is — they could be gravely ill or simply interviewing for other jobs. Ultimately, it’s none of your business. “Our physical, mental, emotional well-being is incredibly personal,” says Manpreet Kalra, a consultant who helps companies navigate equity and inclusion. “It’s okay to not want to share those issues at work. We deserve to be seen by our colleagues the way we wish to be seen.”

Of course, that’s easy to forget. In Audrey’s case, we followed each other on social media, sat near each other in the office, and emailed at all hours — it felt weird to be in the dark about her mysterious ailment. But, according to Kalra, it’s best not to pry. “There are many reasons why we might feel like we deserve to know things about our colleagues’ personal lives,” she says. “You need to be okay with people setting boundaries at work and recognize that it isn’t personal.”

You don’t want to be too breezy, though. “Try to avoid toxic positivity,” says Dr. Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist and the cofounder of Coa, a platform that provides emotional health tools for individuals and workplaces. Pointing out silver linings (“At least you missed today’s terrible meeting!”) can make people feel more alone if they can’t find it in themselves to be upbeat. “It’s not our responsibility to fix other people’s problems or pain,” she says. “Focus instead on just being a presence for them if they need it.”

The same goes for unsolicited advice. You may assume that you can relate to what they’re going through, because you, like most people, have called in sick before, but don’t foist your personal story on them unless they ask. “You want to meet them where they are,” says Kalra. “Sometimes, the best way to be supportive is to provide them with some normalcy at work.”

You can still be supportive from a professional distance. “I recommend offering help in a way that allows them to opt in,” says Dr. Anhalt. Be specific. Broad questions (“What can I do for you?”) can be overwhelming to someone in distress. Instead, Dr. Anhalt recommends trying something like “Let me know if it would help if I took X project off your plate.” Be gracious if they say no, and most importantly, don’t offer anything that you aren’t prepared to give.

After all, an absent colleague could mean you’re already overburdened with extra work, and you’ve got your own boundaries to protect. No matter how close you are with the co-worker in question, don’t be a martyr on their behalf. “Most people, when they’re out, really don’t want to inconvenience anyone else,” says Kalra. “The last thing they need is their colleagues’ resentment.”

Instead, check in with a manager — it’s not tattling if you keep your language neutral and blame-free. “If you are taking on extra work for a colleague who’s out, let your supervisor know what’s happening so that they can give you more direction on managing your priorities,” says Kalra. “It’s their job to balance the needs of their team — even when they conflict with one another.”

Finally, don’t overthink it. Sometimes, a simple note that lets the person know you’re thinking of them — “Please take care, and sending my best for a quick recovery” — is enough.

More From This Series

See All
How Not to Make It Worse When a Co-worker Is Sick