Illness in the Workplace

A co-worker of mine with diabetes has complications. He’s old enough to retire, but his bank account doesn’t know from birthdays so the man continues on. Recently, he’s been having problems with his foot, an infection, the beginning of necrosis.

It’s been interesting to watch the reactions of the people in my office, and even my own. The foot began to smell. Initially, before anyone realized why, they thought the man wasn’t showering. Or that he had some serious gas. It was all very gross and funny and the butt of much ridicule and humor.

Then the smell turned to stench and it was difficult to work in the common area. While we learned it wasn’t the result of poor hygiene or too many bean burritos, it didn’t change the aroma to something palatable. One person who sat by the man went home early because he couldn’t take it anymore. Another complained to the boss. And yet another. The boss said he would talk to the man and if it couldn’t be cleared up, he’d ask him to stay home until it wasn’t an issue. Of course, it would be without pay, what with all the surgeries he’d had, he’d long exhausted his sick days, and for that reason, the man dragged himself to work, even when inappropriate.

The next morning, the man went to the doctor who treated him with antibiotics and taught him how to clean his wound, twice a day. Actually, they wanted to put him in the hospital and put him on an IV, but it was Wednesday and he told his doctor, “No way! I’m not missing bagel day. I’m going to work.” And so he did.

The man is taking care of the wound and the infection is clearing up. While the smell is gone, the ridicule, laughter and criticism continue.

I hear people say:

It’s his own fault for not taking care of himself.
He’s disgusting. I’ll bet his home is a pig sty.
We should say something to him. It may be rude, but he wouldn’t blink an eye to be rude to one of us.
He’s out there smoking a cigarette. He doesn’t care about his health.
I saw him eat a bagel. It’s so bad for diabetes.
He stores hard candies in his desk. He doesn’t even try.

All of these comments amount to:

The Judgment: It’s his own fault.

The Justification: Why should I care about him when he doesn’t even care about his own self?

Fortunately, while everyone would agree the smell was disgusting, not everyone has transferred that disgust on to this man. There are always a few, however, who say the things I wrote above. This saddens me. The smell was difficult for me, too, and before I knew it had to do with the man’s illness, all I could focus on was the grossness of it all.

It’s no surprise that some in the workplace don’t have compassion on the ill or injured. Of course, you see where I’m going. I don’t have to tell you that cancer patients have not always been treated well at work.When you’d think there would be genuine concern and compassion, there is often resentment toward the ill person for not pulling his/her weight in the office and therefore being a burden on others. The ill and injured do not present the picture of prettiness. There is no fussing with fashionable clothing, hair done just right (if there’s any hair to be done), and a perky smile that matches the boundless energy to work, work, work.

I find the lack of compassion by the few to be sad and even sadder that those who should be home often don’t have a choice. They trudge to work at the expense of what little energy or dignity is left. I’m just glad that when I underwent cancer treatment, I worked for a sole practitioner. I usually worked alone and could be as ugly and freakish and lethargic as I was with no one to give a damn.


  1. oh, Eileen, this post just tore at my heartstrings. that poor man who had so many struggles to deal with, then was judged so harshly. here’s something that once popped into my head when I thought a particularly uncharitable thought about someone I loved. he was was acting out in ways many of us do, and really just needed some compassion – I suddenly thought “what if he knew what I was thinking?”. it stopped me dead in my tracks and made me feel so ashamed. it was many, many years ago, but that one question that flashed across my brain taught me a valuable lesson that is you can never go wrong if you offer kindness and compassion, but you will never be right with yourself or others if you succumb to being judgmental. thank you for sharing this story, for highlighting the truth of the horrific struggles of persons in the workplace who have no recourse but to try to stay employed even when desperately ill.

    much love and light,

    Karen xoxoxox

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Karen. I so agree with your comment, “…you will never be right with yourself or others if you succumb to being judgmental.” Sometimes I feel our society really is the survival of the fittest.

  2. Boy did this resonate with me! During cancer treatment, I was treated nicely by some co-workers, but my boss and the head of HR were nasty-bad to me. I was so ill, and it’s amazing how inhumane people are and how they lack empathy. My heart aches for this man.

    • Fortunately, the man’s foot has healed up and everyone has pretty much forgotten. It really is an eye-opener to witness the selfishness and lack of empathy in others, particularly in an employment setting.

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