Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Work Advice: As a co-worker self-destructed, they felt helpless. Could they have done more?

August 29, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Reader: Our co-worker, who had a number of mental and physical health issues, developed anorexia and was hospitalized for malnutrition. When she left the hospital, she was seeing a therapist and regaining her health but had several setbacks and slipped into her old habits. She started having seizures that led to broken bones, concussions and a wrecked car.

She was the only one on our team allowed to work from home, and she lied about her condition, so the extent of her problems was largely hidden from view. She managed to get a minimal amount of work done, and our team picked up the rest. Several of us who knew her better visited her in the hospital, tried to persuade her to go back to therapy and even called her father. We all became frustrated watching her self-destruct.

She died alone at home. We had the sheriff do a welfare check on the second day she failed to log in.

Now I feel angry, searching for someone to blame. I feel like our boss was enabling her by letting her work from home. If she had been required to show up for work, she would have had to face her demons.

This is heartbreaking. I'm having to take her name out of contact lists, and I feel like I'm making her disappear. What could we have done?

Karla: “If only we had ____, she would still be alive.” Please don’t torture yourself trying to fill that unfillable blank.

I understand your anger and your urge to cast blame. But I don’t know that your boss could or should have done otherwise. However well intended, tough-love intervention is not something anyone, least of all an employer, should attempt without professional medical and legal guidance and a deep personal understanding of the individual at risk. Requiring her to commute to work and “face her demons” could have violated her right to reasonable accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act — not to mention endangering her and others on the road.

But even if you and your boss consulted your employee assistance program and HR and handled everything just right, you couldn’t have guaranteed that she would recover. Often, the best you can do is just what you did: Let people know you care, point out a path to treatment and clear what obstacles you can from their way. Everything else is beyond your control.

What you can control are your next steps. The first is to ask your EAP or your doctor for a referral to individual or group grief therapy.

And eventually, if you feel up to it, you can keep your late co-worker’s memory from disappearing by donating or organizing fundraisers in her name to support eating disorder programs.

You all did a good thing, trying to look out for your colleague. Now it’s time to look after yourselves.

PRO TIP: For guidance on supporting workers with eating disorders, see the National Eating Disorders Association (800-931-2237) and the Job Accommodation Network.

Ask Karla Miller about your work dramas and traumas by emailing wpmagazine@washpost.com. Read more Work Advice columns.

For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.

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Karla L. Miller offers weekly advice on workplace dramas and traumas. You can send her questions at work.advice.wapo@gmail.com.

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