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Working with a serious illness

Staff members were understandably concerned about Sam, and he received a lot of sympathy and offers of help. Sam found this very difficult to deal with. He felt his position of leadership had been weakened.
Business owner Sam

Top tips

  • Decide how much you should tell other people and keep to yourself
  • Decide your number one priority, to continue the business, or to fully recover

Falling ill as a business owner

Sam was the owner of a successful Melbourne-based magazine publishing company. He freely admitted to being a workaholic, working long hours, not getting enough exercise and setting a frantic pace for the rest of his staff to keep up with. For the past five years Sam had suffered from a variety of health problems and had promised himself some time out to deal with them. But something always came up and time out never happened.

The business continued to flourish, but Sam's health problems escalated to the point where he was forced to seek medical attention. The problems were of a private nature so he didn’t feel he could discuss them with anyone outside his immediate family. He needed some immediate minor surgery so he scheduled this for a Thursday afternoon, allowing him to be back at work the following Monday morning.

Trying to maintain business as usual

When Sam returned to work, he could barely walk up the stairs to his office.

Staff members were understandably concerned about him, and he received a lot of sympathy and offers of help, which he found very difficult to deal with. He felt his position of leadership had been weakened. Over the next few weeks he developed ways of hiding his condition from staff. He started getting to work even earlier than usual and leaving even later.

Unfortunately, the surgery had not been successful. Sam was diagnosed with cancer and told he needed major surgery as soon as possible. At that point, he felt totally alone and out of control.

He was also told he would need at least eight weeks off work to recover. He thought this was impossible, as several big projects were about to be delivered.

He made a secret agreement with his most trusted member of staff to support him through this period. When he got out of hospital, he had a week at home answering work emails and phone calls, and then returned to the office on a part time basis.

Recovering while working

Sam continued to hide his lack of mobility and strength. His wife drove him to and from work. His secret helper would bring things to his desk so he didn't have to walk. All meetings were scheduled in his office so he didn't have to travel.

The result

Sam had built up a façade that nothing was wrong and he was still firmly in control, but in fact he was struggling physically and emotionally. His periods of not being able to concentrate were getting longer, and he knew he simply could not achieve what he used to.

He had not admitted the seriousness of his illness to himself, and he had not allowed the time and space to get well.