Five years ago, my husband suffered a heart attack. I thank God every day that my children were home from school on that day to save his life. It was not an easy time in our family, and it has taken me a long time to write about this experience because I went through so many emotions over the years, but I am sharing this today because despite the paid there were also learnings that I believe that we as HR professionals can take away and learn from, in particular, the need for us to be more human.
So rewind to June 19, 2015. It started as a normal day. I left for work, and the children were at home, starting their summer vacation. My husband was home from work that day, and I left him taking down the pigeon nest they had built in the front patio for the umpteenth time. The company I was working for at the time was going through divestment and having received word that I was going to lose my job only a few months prior, I was working through the conciliation period.
It was very hard knowing that the job I loved for so long was coming to an end, and so many people would be unemployed like myself. I took comfort in my supportive family, and after many discussions with my husband, the road ahead didn’t look so scary.
A few hours into the day I received a call that would change my life forever, my son called and said Daddy was not feeling well and that an ambulance was called and asked me to come home right away. After telling my manager what was happening, one of my colleagues loaned me her car to get home. The drive home was torture; it felt like it lasted forever. Not only was I scared for my husband but terrified that my children were dealing with this alone and at that moment might be watching Daddy die.
I got another call as I was driving to say the ambulance had arrived and they could not wait for me. I asked for the location to see if I was close enough. I parked in the nearby supermarket’s lot and jumped into the ambulance right there. My husband’s face had an indescribable expression. Things were not looking good. The fear of losing him was overwhelming, but I refused to show him that fear. That ride to the hospital was one of the single worst drives of my life. On arrival, the hospital staff moved quickly to save his life, and within a few hours, he was in ICU.
There are so many other things I could tell you about that day, but I want to talk about the days that followed. As I mentioned, my organization was going through a massive redundancy phase, and we were in the throws of helping employees find new jobs, calculating severance packages, guiding people through counseling, and medical insurance plan transitions. I was struggling with so many raw emotions during this period, but what struck me was the organization’s response at the time to my plight. My world was crumbling, and the only thing they seemed to care about was that I completed the tasks at hand.
In my lunch hours, and straight after work, I would visit my husband sometimes first thing in the morning. I remember crying in my car on several occasions before leaving home. The questions my children were asking about Daddy surviving and the answers I had to give while fighting back the urge to breakdown, were some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever experienced.
I’m sharing this very personal story because it has made me the professional that I am today. I remember how I felt every time I went to work, and every time I had to leave and come back. I felt sick, angry, frustrated that I couldn’t get time off to go through this ordeal. There was work to be done, and that was all that mattered.
As we lead people who have feelings, families, and responsibilities that go beyond the confines of your organization’s bottom line, empathy is not a luxury; it’s a necessity to thrive as a successful leader and business.
I want to share three things I wished my organization had done better that I believe we can all learn from:
- Understanding employees’ emotional pain will affect their performance as much as if it were physical. Never live your life as though bad things cannot happen to you.
- Employers must look beyond work focus and realize the importance of employee mental health and wellness. Yes, work is important, but when you have an employee who is experiencing a life-altering event, make adequate adjustments that allow the employee to deal with their situation. People, over process, is the Agile mindset.
- Flexibility is key when dealing with an employee caring for a family member after a life-threatening situation! don’t think any reasonable employer would consider a few days off to regroup oneself (and children) or to provide care for a spouse who almost died, a deal-breaker. Many countries (the UK, US, Canada ) have such Employee Benefits in place as a requirement of the law (i.e., compassionate leave, FMLA, etc.)
My husband survived his heart attack, but he alone didn’t bear the brunt of the scars from that experience. My whole family did. Now, more than ever, in the age of Coronavirus, when your employees experience life-altering or life-threatening events, your response impacts how they will approach their jobs and role in your company in the future. Had I not been already made redundant, I would have left from the sheer lack of compassion shown.
Being human takes nothing out of you, and showing empathy makes people more inclined to show up for you in the future. I hope you take my life lessons and learn from them.