As my husband passed out, he vomited, and the pizza sauce from our dinner earlier was on the rug. My first thought? "Oh no! Now I'll have to replace the carpet before we sell the house."
My husband wasn't dying. We weren't planning on moving.
But before his head hit the floor from his seated position, I had become a widow who needed to replace the carpet to sell the house so our two small children and I could move back to be close to family.
I was catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that prompts people to jump to the worst possible conclusion, usually with minimal information or objective reason to despair.
And some managers and HR professionals catastrophize when an employee shares their cancer diagnosis.
And it's perfectly normal.
"I felt guilty every time I saw my employee," said Joe. He was managing a team of six when one of his employees shared her cancer diagnosis. "My first thought was 'Crap; we can't complete [name of the project] now. And I'm going to lose my job!' That is not what I said, but I felt bad because my first thought was about me, not her!"
When in crisis, we usually do not react the way our non-crisis selves expect. That's because a crisis always comes with emotion.
After my world-is-coming-to-an-end thought, my attention went to my husband, and EMT training kicked in. I called 911 and checked to make sure that he was breathing and that his airway was clear. By the time I called a neighbor to stay with the kids, Art was conscious. By the time EMS arrived, Art was alert, embarrassed, and was insistent that he be allowed to walk down a flight of stairs to the ambulance. (A request that was denied.) He was never close to dying that day.
Catastrophizing is normal if it is a fleeting, quick thought. It becomes a problem if you obsess over what might happen and take actions based on the limited amount of information you have.
Catastrophizing can leave a manager feeling guilty and questioning their humanity. It's alarming to have a 'me' thought when you believe the situation calls for you to focus on the other person.
But it doesn't make you a bad manager. It makes you human.
Catastrophizing does bring to the surface reasonable manager concerns. Now that your employee has cancer, how much work will they be able to manage? What does that mean for the rest of the team? And for the projects in your pipeline? How do you find out how much your employee with cancer can work?
Here are two steps you can follow after your employee has shared their cancer diagnosis to help you manage your concerns.
When they first share with you, keep quiet and let them talk. Do not bring up work after your employee has shared their cancer diagnosis unless they do. A new diagnosis leaves many questions unanswered, and your employee may not be able to answer them yet, like their treatment regiment and the side effects of the drugs. Instead, I suggest you focus on how they want to communicate the news to team members and others. This will help put your employee at ease and open the door to an honest conversation around work and their ability to manage it.
Set up a different time to talk about work that week. Here is where you can develop a work plan together. It's essential to set up regular intervals to check-in. Many employees significantly underestimating the fatigue caused by chemo, surgery, or radiation. And many managers significantly overestimate the time off an employee will need. So whatever work plan you put into place before treatment begins may need to be adjusted.
And pleeeaaaassseeeee check in with your HR practitioner or consultant who can review the ADA, FMLA, and LOA if they come up. Not knowing the law isn't' an excuse that judges deem reasonable.