“I found out I was diagnosed with cancer at my desk at work one day at 10 a.m. The doctor wanted to see me the very next day and told me to bring someone who wasn’t a family member. I got off the phone and looked around my cubicle. Then I went and told my boss who immediately brought in someone skilled and knowledgeable who sat with me to figure out what I needed to do in the moment. My boss made it clear that nothing at work was important in the grand scheme of things. She made it easy to turn my focus to my health.”
During these initial days after her diagnosis, Cindy’s leader and team were there for her in all kinds of practical ways. They helped her arrange transportation, fill out paperwork, and apply for FMLA. They helped her navigate it all. And as her situation unfolded, they continued to help.
Because Cindy had young children, she had no sick leave balances to draw from. But leave was donated to her by employees so that her family not only retained the critically necessary medical benefits, but she never missed a paycheck for a year. Every month someone came to visit her. They sent her messages and kept her up to speed on what was happening at work so that she felt included. They did everything they could to help her know that she was important.
“It is hard to take in that much love,” she said. “They must have valued me. There must’ve been some things I had done or something about me that contributed to that. But how could anyone be loved so much? My internal tapes told me I wasn’t worthy. How could I be worth so much?”
“I felt a really deep commitment and loyalty to the organization and the people I worked with to stay connected and get well so I could come back. I wanted to get well not just for my family but well for my team. I was eager to be part of the work again, to honor their commitment and investment in me. Making a difference at work had a deeper meaning. It had always been important to me but now it had more significance. I wanted to make work better. At first I worked from home one day a week, then gradually returned to work, eventually full time.”
“When I returned, I walked through halls surrounded by people who had carried me. It was a holy ground feeling. These people carried me. We do important work here and I want to contribute to that work and really make it count. I wanted to be able to support others in the same way so we could all feel the love one way or another. This love from people was sustaining. It was huge in terms of my ability to focus on getting well. Their love had a profound impact on the outcome which is I’m sitting here today 11 years later.”
“We are all connected and you just can’t ignore that. We all want each other to succeed and be happy. That’s real. When we sit in an audience during a presentation or performance, we are not waiting for them to fail. We want them to succeed. That’s our nature to have empathy.”
“This experience changed me. I love myself more now and want others to have that experience. Confidence comes from this too. We are all here by the grace of God. We are all one and need to be here for one another. When I look around at people, I am aware that so much can be going on that we can’t see. I wonder if they are dealing with a dying mother, or an addicted child, or painful relationship. We all have those things you don’t see at work. Fear isolates us and cuts us off. We need to hold each other with a great deal of compassion as we try to do our work so we can bring ourselves to that work, not just our professional selves but our whole selves.”
Cindy said it so beautifully, didn’t she? We will all face personal challenges in our lives, some large and some small. This is part of what it means to be human. The expectation that we all ignore these challenges and act as if nothing's wrong is not only unrealistic, it is harmful. Fear and mistrust are created across the entire organization when people are told to, “Leave home at home and work at work,” and, “Don’t let your personal issues interfere with work.”
The real test of our organizational character is how we respond to people during a crisis. These moments of truth seal the deal on whether organizations, leaders, and teams are perceived as trustworthy or not. Employees watch and learn whether they should be afraid or not. They learn if the organization is worthy of their dedication or just using them. They find out if they should stick around and give their best efforts or go somewhere else where they will be treated as human beings.
Cindy’s leader and team chose to respond to this very tough situation with empathy, care, and compassion. They weren’t afraid to love. On the contrary they were abundant with their love, and it made all the difference for Cindy, and ultimately for the organization too. That’s the beauty of love; it’s life-giving for everyone!
*"Love Stories About Work" are drawn from my research interviews on fear and love in the workplace. Also in this series: Carol's Social Services Team and Hayley's Leader Goes the Extra Mile. These stories are used with permission but the names of people have been changed and organizations not identified to protect and respect the identity of participants. I am so grateful to all who have shared their stories with me so that we can learn from their experiences and build a more human workplace.