Co-Workers' Cheers Assuage Fears
When the Going Gets Tough, Colleagues' Support Can Make a World of Difference
By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page F05
When Charlene Unitan found out in February that she had breast cancer and needed surgery followed by chemotherapy, the support she received from her workplace helped her dig her way through the toughest of tough times.
Her boss told her to take care of herself first. And even though Unitan did not have much sick leave in the bank, her leave time kept growing as co-workers anonymously donated their own.
The logistics taken care of, she now relies on the kind words from her boss and co-workers, some of whom she was not close to before her illness, to perk her up during hard times. "I get e-mails from my boss and co-workers telling me, 'I'm keeping you in my prayers,' " said Unitan, an attorney in the general counsel's office at the Department of Health and Human Services. "I'm letting every religion pray for me. I don't care who it is."
The words cheer her as she works from home, fighting her fuzzy "chemo brain" and the fatigue she feels throughout her treatment. "There have been times I've been really down, thinking, 'How am I going to feel halfway human again?' " she said. Then she receives an e-mail from a co-worker or a supervisor telling her to keep at it, or that they are thinking of her. That's when she thinks, "Oh yeah, I can do this," she said. "It's very uplifting."
Many organizations provide employee assistance programs designed to guide workers through difficult times. But it's often the more incidental sign of caring and concern from a co-worker or boss that helps people get through the rough times.
"Workplaces, in a way, are like the new neighborhood," said Dory Hollander, a workplace psychologist and coach. So when co-workers know something's not going well in their cube-mate's life, "it means a tremendous amount, not only in the sense of touching them, but that they're a part of something or that they're appreciated. . . . If you don't have control over a situation, one of the best things that can help buoy your spirits and restore some sense of equilibrium is feeling connected and being part of a community."
Offices need to be supportive because everybody goes through hardships. And most people need that support at work as well as outside, said Robbie Miller Kaplan, author of "How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say: The Right Words for Difficult Times."
Kaplan knows about difficult times, and she said that if it hadn't been for a supportive workplace, she and her husband would have had an even more difficult time getting through them. They lost two babies to a heart defect in one year. Her husband worked for Fairfax County, and the workers advanced him sick leave, came to the funerals, brought food and sent plants, even though he had been there for only three months. He went on to work there for 18 years. "I cannot tell you what a difference it made," Kaplan said.
But there are times, she said, when office mates can make a problem worse. Kaplan heard about a woman whose baby died seven months into her pregnancy. The woman called her supervisor and asked him to e-mail her co-workers so no one would question her when she returned to work. The supervisor never sent the e-mail. When the woman returned, everyone asked her where she had been. After they heard the news, they were too afraid to approach her. It made an unthinkably hard situation even worse.
"Many times, when someone has experienced loss and you send them a card or made a donation, you think, 'I did my job,' " Kaplan said. "But that person is going to grieve for a long time. Stop and say, 'How are you doing?' . . . It's meaningful to know their loved one and they are not forgotten."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company