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When serious illness strikes, contain the contagion of fear

Question: I'm the owner of a small business with a close-knit staff. We're doing OK in the current economy, but I was recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition. It is not immediately life-threatening, but it will take a toll on my abili...

Question: I'm the owner of a small business with a close-knit staff. We're doing OK in the current economy, but I was recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition. It is not immediately life-threatening, but it will take a toll on my ability to pull my own weight at work for a while. Any suggestions on how I should break the news to my staff?

Answer: People are resilient, and your team will step up to help if you're willing to ask.

THE INNER GAME

There's a lot to deal with when you receive a serious diagnosis. Not only do you have to address the personal aspects, you also have to look out for the well-being of your employees. Acknowledge these challenges and accept the emotions that come with them, rather than trying to deny them. It'll give you more energy in the long run.

Be realistic about what you'll be able to do. Consider best-case/worst-case impacts on your ability to work, and assess where your engagement is most essential.

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With a "close-knit" team, you've got a great asset. Trust them, but also recognize the anxiety your news will cause. Think through how much personal information is appropriate to share and determine the message you'd like to send to reassure staff about their job security and clients about the company's stability.

THE OUTER GAME

Beat the rumor mill! Make your plan and act promptly so that worrisome rumors don't start to spread. There's nothing as contagious as fear, so it's up to you to quell it before it starts.

That said, get your key staff in the loop first so that they aren't surprised and you can craft a cohesive story. Your line staff will be much more comfortable if they know exactly who to go to when they have questions or need assistance.

As the owner, you wear a lot of hats, including HR, finance, operations, strategic planning, etc. Think about the skills of the people on your team and map out who could best fill each role when you aren't available. Assume there'll be some times when you are completely out so no one is blindsided if that happens. Then meet with them to present your ideas and get their thoughts on how to best manage through this time.

When you're ready to tell the whole team, get right to the point. Don't be surprised if people have a feeling that something's going on _ it's hard to have secrets in a small office. Let them know, at the appropriate level, what they can expect from your symptoms. Tell them your plans to keep your medical issues from disrupting the firm. Also, offer the rest of the staff ways that they can help you. This'll make them feel better, and can give you permission to not be Superwoman.

Then, let others help. It's one thing to have a plan in place, and another to use it. You'll all be better off if you share the work so that you don't wear yourself out. Be willing to show your trust in them.

THE LAST WORD

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Communication, openness, planning, and trust will help your company weather the challenges.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Liz Reyer is a credentialed coach with more than 20 years of business experience. Her company, Reyer Coaching & Consulting, offers services for organizations of all sizes. Submit questions or comments about this column at www.deliverchange.com/coachscorner or e-mail her at liz@deliverchange.com .

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(c) 2010, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Visit the Star Tribune Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.startribune.com

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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