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The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and total well-being of their employees first. Register for the 2020 Employee Recommended Workplace Award at: This series of articles supports the award.

You run up the last flight of stairs at work to get to your desk on time for your weekly team call. You’re a bit haggard as you make those last 20 steps. Your deep breathing is a reminder to focus on your physical fitness.

As you start to get your breath back and before you get to your desk, you feel a tug on your arm. One of your work colleagues wants to talk to you. They appear upset and it becomes evident why as they tell you about a team member who’s just been diagnosed with cancer – and it’s at stage 3. They’re now off work, fighting for their life.

This microskill focuses on how to support an ill peer. Whether physical or psychological, the type of illness doesn’t matter. What matters is becoming in tune with your role, taking accountability for your actions, and showing up.


Perhaps one of the most successful recovery programs today is alcoholics anonymous (AA), which is peer-driven and has helped millions of people. Peer support is powerful, and it can’t be understated how much it can help someone in need to get help to get them back on track so they can return to work.

When faced with a sick peer, be clear that it’s not you who’s struggling. It can’t be about you feeling uncomfortable, insecure or unsure what to say.

What a sick peer needs from you is your authentic self. They often don’t have the energy to help you deal with their illness or coach you that it’s okay. What they need is for you to be you. Accept them as they are, make it clear that you care and communicate that you are willing to help them.

The first action is to become aware of your role. It doesn’t need to be complicated; just ask, “What can I do to help?”


Our actions toward an ill person can either be supportive or not supportive. One key tenet when supporting a person experiencing an illness is to follow through and be consistent with the kind of support you agree to provide, such as visiting once a week. Actions matter more than words.

Instead of guessing how you can help, be clear. “I heard you were diagnosed with cancer. I’m sorry, and I want you to know that I’m here for you. What can I do that would be most helpful? Please let me know, as I want to be there for you.”

The goal is to find out what you can do without assuming. If your peer is unsure, you can make it clear that you’ll be staying in touch and will keep asking, because you care. You can’t change their situation, but you can allow them to know that you’re not going to hide from them, and that you’re committed to supporting them. A person who’s ill can benefit from having a support system. By letting them know that even if they’re not at work you’re committed to providing them the best opportunity to return to work, or to not feel alone if the end of their life is near.


When done right, supporting a person with a physical or mental illness can be powerful medicine. Humans thrive when in social connections where we feel safe and empowered.

Coaching tips:

  • Be yourself: If you had a peer relationship prior to their illness where you teased and joked with each other, don’t change; continue. You’ll know if they don’t or can’t play back, and you can adjust. They’ll appreciate that you’re respecting them as the person you know them as. The best support you can give them is to be authentic, so they have some normalcy in their life. Becoming ill is a major deviation from normal; having some familiarity can be a nice reminder of what to look forward to, and a source of hope.
  • Ask questions: The most important tip may be that it’s okay that you don’t need to know what to do. The ill person can coach you as to what they’ll find most helpful. Assuming can lead to an idea like they don’t want to be bugged, which results in avoidance. What they need is for you to ask, listen and be respectful of their wishes.
  • Monitor energy: Be mindful that an ill person may not have as much energy as they want, so pay attention. While you may think they want you to sit with them for hours, they may not but are being polite and pushing themselves to keep talking rather than resting. Be open, check in on their energy and how they’re doing, and adapt to their needs – not what you think they need.

Read about the 2019 winners of the award and watch a video from the winners here. You can also purchase the benchmark report that outlines findings from 2018 at this link.

Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

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