Making An Office A Place For Healing

How to create a supportive environment for a co-worker battling serious illness

The Office of Communication Services' Pris Toms sits in her cubicle, which was decorated with butterflies by her co-workers.
The Office of Communication Services' Pris Toms sits in her cubicle, which was decorated with butterflies by her co-workers.

When Pris Toms returned to work after a month away, she was greeted with around 500 emails and exactly 114 paper butterflies.

Some butterflies were stuck to the wall near her desk, others hung from string draped over her cubicle. Some were busting with color, others featured handwritten heartfelt messages.

“People came from downstairs and upstairs and down the hall,” Toms said of her first day back as staff assistant in the Office of Communication Services in Human Resources. “Before I could get to them, they came to me, embracing me. It made me feel, seriously, like a Hollywood celebrity. I couldn’t ask for a better red carpet.”

Roughly 11 weeks earlier, in April of this year, Toms learned she had colorectal cancer, kicking off a wrenching journey that changed her life. While doctors and caregivers played the main roles in her recovery, Toms said her Duke co-workers provided much-needed support.With long hours spent together and relationships that last years, co-workers can often feel like family. So when one is dealing with a serious illness, it can affect the whole office. It’s also a chance to show how meaningful those collegial bonds can be.

“Whatever’s going on, you can’t fix, you just have to support the person,” said Barbara Eldredge, a counselor with Duke’s Personal Assistance Service.

Eldredge offered advice on how to help a co-worker who is battling a serious illness.

Don’t assume, ask

The response Toms got when she returned left her touched. But not everyone would have had the same reaction. Whether it’s inquiring about what kind of help they need or making sure they’re OK with how much attention they receive, Eldredge said it’s important to ask questions.

“Everybody is different,” Eldredge said. “What one person would find helpful, somebody else might find intrusive. Part of it is, asking.”

Toms said she was often in contact with co-workers who asked what she needed. One colleague, who served as de facto inter-office communicator, always asked what information about her treatment she wanted shared.

“A good team is going to think ‘What things can we take off their plate?’” Eldredge said. “But, you want to ask. You might accidentally take the one thing that person’s actually looking forward to doing.”

Be available

When Toms was away from the office, co-workers ensured she wasn’t forgotten. She received a near constant stream of calls, texts and emails, checking in on her and wishing her well.

But the communications that left the biggest impact were phone calls from colleagues that were about nothing at all. Whether it was updates on what was happening in the office or discussions about what was on television, Toms said she the loved the chance to feel normal.

Eldredge said this isn’t uncommon. Some of the most valuable things co-corkers can do is simply take time to talk and listen.

“That meant the world to me,” Toms said. “The chit chat was awesome. It keeps your mind off of everything else.”

Be tolerant

For Toms, work is a chance to get away from the stresses of cancer. But for most people in her position, the worries of a major illness follow them to the workplace. Eldredge said that’s an important thing to keep in mind.

According to Eldredge, co-workers should expect inconsistency from someone battling illness. They may have a hard time focusing or not seem like themselves.

“A big thing is understanding that they’re likely not going to be at their best,” Eldredge said.

Showing colleagues patience and understanding is crucial.

 “You have to have special people who can walk through this with you,” Toms said.

Now back at work after undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Toms is inching closer to normalcy. If everything goes as planned, she’ll have surgery to remove the cancer later this summer. Until then, she’ll show up for work under her canopy of butterflies.