Career coach: Don't sweep death under

Talking openly about a workmate who has died can allow colleagues to support each other

In the UK, one in three people develops cancer and one in four dies of it, according to the Office for National Statistics. That's a gloomy thought to have as I look up from my computer and out upon a grey, wet winter's day. If you are wondering what the relevance is to you, my hope is that the answer is none at all.

However, cancer has affected many members of my chief executive support groups, and it is likely to become a feature in your professional life too. As I write, one group member is on long-term leave as she faces her own health challenges. Another is on call to a best friend who has prostate cancer, and three are dealing, or have recently dealt, with deaths in the organisation.

Imagine that in a team of 12 people two women in their forties die, one is given a terminal diagnosis, but recovers after treatment and you, the chief executive, have recently lost someone close. How would you manage?

It's not improbable. It happened earlier this year. The chief executive in question managed by not sweeping things under the carpet - the common way to deal with death. Death is the last social taboo. We talk about anything and everything now, but death - the only thing that we can be sure will happen to us all - we still find impossible to discuss.

With permission from the relevant people, she talked openly to the team about what was happening, realising that there's little worse than being left to roam the plains of our own vivid imaginations. Colleagues were able to give support and remain in touch, which was empowering for everyone.

After some coaching from myself and other members in her group, the same chief executive decided to hold a non-religious ceremony to commemorate the lives of the two colleagues that the organisation had lost and to welcome back the one who, against all odds, was well again. The whole team held a special day to honour what had taken place within the organisation.

It was a warm and sensitive gesture. Most importantly, it rebuilt the closeness of the team, which had obviously been rocked by recent events.

If you find yourself in a situation like this, do consider getting support.

It is a situation no amount of training can prepare you for.

When the decision was made from the top of another organisation to suppress information about a colleague's illness, it caused a negative effect within the team. People are used to being with someone every day. If someone disappears for a long period with no explanation, it can give rise to a range of disruptive behaviour. In this organisation, colleagues who normally got on well argued, timekeeping went askew and boundaries were breached. Major secret-keeping has its own cancerous effect.


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