Meetings & Conventions Working Through it July
Working Through it
Odds are, a Down doesn’t mean out. Keeping your career on
track in the face of serious illness
By Amy Drew Teitler Illustration by Elizabeth LadaS
itting in her car outside the doctor's
office, Jennie McNeill, then 36, felt the hammer come down. After
holding her composure in the office and listening intently to what
the doctors had to say, after collecting her thoughts and asking
the pertinent questions, she let the tears come. Resting her head
on the steering wheel, she thought about her three kids. She
thought about what to tell the staff of her 2-year-old New Orleans
Then Jennie thought about her role model, her mother, who lost a
valiant four-year battle with cancer just a month earlier. Now, the
doctors said, it was coming for her.
Children and family naturally spring to mind when one is facing
a potentially life-threatening illness. But what about your job?
Part of your family's security comes from your knowing how to
handle a medical condition that could affect your work or, worse,
take you out of the office for months of recuperation.
How much? How little? How late?
How do you break the news to your boss? Your staff? Do you tell
them at all? What will your clients say if they find out you're in
less-than-perfect shape to run their meetings? Every situation is
different, but those who spoke to M&C agree that when,
whom and how much you tell depends on your work environment.
"It's just a judgment call," says Harv Sims, senior consultant
for CareerLab, an Englewood, Colo.-based business executive
consulting firm. "If you're working in an environment with low
trust, you're not going to want to be candid. What we have in
today's work force is a 'free agent society.' Downsizing has people
in continual fear of losing their jobs. A serious illness only adds
to the anxiety."
For McNeill, telling her small staff was imperative because her
company was still in the growing stage. Unfortunately, so was the
cancer. "The doctors told me that I had to have the operation [to
see how bad the situation was] as soon as possible," she says.
Still, she put off the surgery for two weeks to meet with attorneys
and set up things she never before thought about: her will, who
would take care of her kids if she couldn't. In her haste to get
her business up and running, she had failed to install a medical
safety net within the infrastructure of the company.
"I had three kids and some employees I felt responsible for. I
met with my staff and started entrusting more to them."
It became a team effort to keep her situation a secret. When
clients called, her staff said she was on vacation, on a site
inspection, out of the office. "I decided that my health issues had
to stay within the office. People panic when they hear 'cancer.' I
had two very large corporate contracts that could have been
Sims, who has worked in human resources for 25 years, thinks
this course can be taken in a small work environment, but cautions
against it in larger corporate settings. "You don't want to have
too many agendas. You'll begin to lose track of who knows and who
doesn't," he says.
His advice: Tell your immediate supervisor, but no one else.
"The more people around you, the less likely you are to know them
well enough to trust them with such personal matters. Trust is
really the crux of good teamwork."
Although honesty is a great policy, discretion might be the way
to go. "You don't need to tell anyone right away," says Steven
Viscusi, human resources expert and host of "Career Talk," a
nationally syndicated radio talk show. Viscusi gets calls of this
nature all the time concerning cancer, HIV and other serious
illnesses. "Telling people can create a stigma with your
co-workers. When you do have to start talking, tell your boss
first. You don't want your superior hearing about it from someone
Following are four ways to ease
1. Notify mortgage, car loan and credit card
companies of your situation. Try to work out with them
some modification to your payment schedule. You will be in a much
stronger position to negotiate if your payments are current and
generally have been on time in the past.
2. Call your lawyer if alimony and
child-support payments are involved. Keep your lawyer current on
your prognosis so he can work effectively on your behalf.
3. Contact your state unemployment office
regarding your eligibility for benefits.
4. If you are invested in a 401K plan and anticipate money
trouble due to your illness, get in touch with your 401K’s
financial institution to find out about the possibility of
an “emergency withdrawal.”
Hearts and Valentine's Day generally go together, but it wasn't
Cupid's arrow that struck Meeting Professionals International
president and CEO Ed Griffin last Feb. 14. While playing basketball
at a Dallas rec center, the 50-year-old Griffin suffered a severe
heart attack from which he is still recovering. "When you have [a
heart attack] as bad as mine," says Griffin, "you don't think about
anything other than trying to live."
Several surgeries were necessary to get his health back on
track, so his ability to work has been greatly curtailed. He
attributes his ability to relax and get better to an outstanding
staff. "I didn't call into my voice mail for six weeks," says
Griffin, who followed his doctor's advice to take it easy. "I built
a strong team that has done exceptionally well at apprising me of
what's going on."
Because his problem struck with no warning, Griffin did not have
the luxury of planning ahead to compensate for his absence, but he
is not permitting job stress to inhibit his recovery.
"You've got to look at the long term," Griffin says. "[If this
happens], and you're an independent planner, the pressure is on
that your business may fold." Griffin's advice to planners with
their own operation is to lean on friends within the industry.
"Maybe other planners could help you hold on to clients," he says.
"Sometimes competitors can be friends in health situations."
He adds that at MPI, the "family-style" atmosphere helps
staffers remain at ease about medical problems. "Recently, one
person had to have gall bladder surgery. Another is about to have a
hysterectomy. The last thing they should worry about is losing
Health should come first. With a serious illness taking its toll on
the body and thoughts of the consequences turning cartwheels in the
mind, planners are going to have to delegate work to staffers in
order to get better and ensure clients are having their needs met
Chris Carr is director of conference services for the American
Automobile Association based in Orlando, Fla., and a member of
MPI's executive committee. A planner for 22 years, the last thing
he expected was for a simple surgery to turn into a fight for
"I went in for a procedure to repair torn cartilage," Carr told
M&C. "And at some point, a staph infection was
introduced during the surgery." Five days afterward, Carr collapsed
at a meeting. "Five hours later, I couldn't walk," he says. "The
doctors misdiagnosed the infection at first, and the staph wasn't
caught for nearly two weeks."
Once the infection was discovered, Carr was admitted for two
emergency surgeries. The infection had gotten so advanced that the
second operation nearly cost him his life. He spent the next two
months in bed. With so many recuperative drugs in his system, Carr
admits he could scarcely read a paragraph. He was powerless even to
delegate responsibilities. "I couldn't be of any help to my staff,"
he says, laughing. "It was nearly two-and-a-half months before I
could get involved even on a part-time basis."
Carr and his staff do about 325 meetings each year, so his
absence created a trial-by-fire situation for the remaining
planners. Carr was pleased with the results. "I feel like I've got
a better team than I did before. They learned that they can do a
lot of things on their own."
Viscusi says resisting delegation is a big mistake. "In meeting
planning, you need to pass off responsibilities. This is a very
deadline-oriented industry." He adds that planners should be ahead
of other people when it comes to setting things up properly.
"Planners are goal-oriented. They make the best candidates for
reorganizing their lives."
Carr admits that prior to this experience, he never would take
more than a week's vacation. "I realized that once you pass the
'guilty stage' of the first five or six days, you can disassociate.
When you can't get out of bed, you really learn to appreciate what
The 's' factor
Focusing too hard on missed work and deadlines will create stress,
which can impede recovery. "Work can help to get your mind off the
illness, but pushing yourself too hard can affect the ability to
heal," says Kelly Johnson, clinical social worker for the Piedmont
Cancer Institute in Greensboro, N.C. Hard-core treatments like
chemotherapy or radiation can exhaust a patient, stressing the
immune system and affecting the ability to bounce back.
Although McNeill's condition did not require such harsh methods,
she feels stress posed a big threat to her health. "We are in an
industry that's very time-consuming," says McNeill. "I used to work
48 hours a day. Now, if I need to take time out, I take it. If you
don't have your health, what good are you to your family? I can't
put myself last anymore."
Ironically, McNeill headed up the planning for the American Cancer
Society's annual tennis tournament and fund-raiser long before she
was diagnosed. It is an event she still loves to work, although she
since has become director of meetings and education for the Texas
Grain & Feed Association in Fort Worth. "I realized I can make
a difference," she says. "You can still accomplish things. It's not
a death sentence."
Viscusi believes the key to recovery in the workplace is to not
make your condition the focal point of your life. "Even in cases
with chemo, people are often back at work sooner then they think.
One of the keys to survival is staying active." Viscusi's mother,
who died of breast cancer, was instrumental in making him realize
the importance of work in a patient's life.
"Planners are energetic and organized," he says. "If anyone can
find a way to work an ailment into their schedule, they can." He
cites the case of a New York City planner he counseled. "She was
undergoing chemotherapy and started taking the train for her
frequent trips to Washington, D.C., rather than flying." The
reason? "It was easier to throw up on the train than on the
Viscusi does not mock the serious nature of the illness; rather,
he means to let people know that the first step to recovery is to
maintain positive energy and not let an affliction stand in the way
of what they love to do.
Employees returning to work after a medical problem has kept
them from the office tend to be guilt-ridden, says Lester Tobias,
Ph.D., a management psychologist based in Westboro, Mass. They feel
awful about missing work.
"Managers need to follow their human instincts," says Tobias,
"and let the person know that the company will understand." He says
the boss should make it abundantly and repeatedly clear that it is
OK if they cannot perform at their previous level.
"Often," says Tobias, "co-workers won't say things like, 'Can I
give you a hand with that?' because they don't want the returning
employee to feel less capable. Bosses need to articulate to the
staffer that they are still valued."
Also, Tobias says, if it does not violate a confidentiality, it
should be made known to the person's co-workers that they might
want to make fewer demands on her for a while. "The rule of thumb
in situations like this is open communication."
How Could This Happen TO ME?
By Mike Kabo
When I started to feel feverish during a Jan. 10 flight to New
York City, I was too busy thinking about the three international
meetings I would be facilitating in the next two months to pay it
much mind. When I awoke the next day feeling worse, I didn’t want
to admit I was ill, but my wife insisted I go to the doctor.
I soon learned I had a brain abscess, caused by a possibly
malignant tumor in my esophagus, and would require two major
surgeries within a three-week period. Alarmingly, no one could say
for sure when I would be totally back to normal. I thought, What if
my recovery takes a very long time or is complicated? How was I
going to ply my trade, something I had been perfecting for 20
years? How was I going to keep my current clients, let alone
acquire new business? How would I support myself and my family? On
reflection, it is interesting that my fears were centered around my
job, not the impending surgeries.
The operations were as successful as could be expected.
Antibiotics took care of the brain infection, and the tumor and
(seemingly) the cancer are gone.
From this, I learned more than I ever imagined about myself and
about life. When you have your own business, it can become the
center of your universe. My illness taught me there are so many
other things that are more important than the job. If illness
strikes, it is important to recognize and accept that recovery
depends on continuous, heavy doses of positive thinking, good humor
and the love and support of family and friends.
MIKE KABO, an M&C contributing editor, is president of
Solutions Inc., a management consulting firm in New York City and
I will survive
Talking with groups going through similar processes can help ground
you and let you know you are not alone. They can share how they
have overcome obstacles in their professional lives. Johnson of the
Piedmont Cancer Institute says, "When people realize that what
they're going through is normal, they can better handle their
illness. They learn more from each other than they ever could from
McNeill's candid outlook on her disease is something that has
helped her hit the comeback trail. "I made the mistake of thinking
I'd be around forever," says McNeill, who has been cancer-free for
three years since her diagnosis and received MPI's Tomorrow's
Leader award in the midst of her initial battle with the disease.
She takes a deep breath. "Cancer," she says, "is merely something
that tells you it's time to re-evaluate and change your life."
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