July 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Working Through it July 1999 Current Issue
July 1999

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 Lada

Sitting 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 planning firm.

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 lost."

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 else."

Worried About Money?
Following are four ways to ease financial woes.

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.”

Mike Kabo

Without warning
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 their jobs."

Staff support
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 seamlessly.

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 survival.

"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 you have."

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."

Good humor
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 shuttle."

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
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 San Francisco.

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 me."

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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