By Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D.
At the small company where I work, the CEO is quite ill. Although he is obviously suffering, he still comes to the office, where much of the time he can only rest. We all admire his courage, but we're beset by fears that he'll have a medical emergency—or even die—here. Meanwhile, crucial tasks are falling through the cracks. Can you suggest an approach to this delicate problem? — Anonymous, New York
When it comes to dealing with the debilitating illness of any employee, let alone a CEO, many people—both managers and workers—are at a loss. They either become tongue-tied in the presence of the ailing colleague or mutter something like "hope you're feeling better"—expressing their real feelings or worries instead to others, in whispered, albeit well-intentioned, conversations.
It can be an enormous relief if the sick person makes it clear that it's O.K. to talk openly about the situation. But a business can't count on that. An employee already burdened with health woes may not have the energy to bring up the subject. Or, in the case of a CEO, it just may not be part of his or her makeup. Some of the most adaptive aspects of a CEO's personality—feelings of strength and invulnerability—may make him or her more liable to deny the severity of an illness.
So it's usually up to the staff to break the ice. And when the ailing individual is a key member of that staff, the matter takes on some urgency. This is especially true in the case of a CEO at a small company, where you don't have directors and where the enterprise can feel a lot like a family (one whose parent can no longer provide needed guidance).
Raising the issue with your CEO will take courage and sensitivity. You may even feel guilty about asking him to think about the business, given his health crisis. The chances are, though, that he won't feel it's inappropriate. He has demonstrated by his daily presence that the company's smooth functioning still matters a lot to him.
How to begin? Consider forming a small group of employees who are close to the CEO. You might also include a family member for advice, if that seems appropriate. After picking a spokesperson (you don't want your chief to feel ganged up on when he's so frail), ask for a meeting. The designated talker should acknowledge the difficulty of the conversation, then tell the CEO that the staff would like to enlist his help in dealing with their concerns about his illness and the effect it's having on the business. Tell him the truth: The staff is having trouble focusing on work. There's also a leadership vacuum. Could he appoint someone to be in charge, even temporarily, so he can focus on taking care of himself? Say all this with warmth and caring, and you might be surprised at how much he'll appreciate your concern. It might even help him deal with his illness. You owe it to him and the company to speak up. Otherwise, the health of the business will be in peril, too.
Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, advises executives on psychological aspects of business. Send him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Edited by Deborah Stead