How to navigate terminal illness in the workplace

Not long ago I spoke to a client about a very challenging situation, which I (unfortunately) believe many leaders may face at some point in their careers. Imagine discovering that a close friend and long-time colleague, who plays a pivotal role in your company’s success, has less than a year to live. This news is devastating on a personal level, yet also presents complex professional challenges. How do you navigate this situation with empathy and effectiveness?


In situations like this that can shift rapidly, thinking through possible outcomes and having a clear plan in place for each can be helpful. You can’t say, ‘this will happen and we’ll do this’, but you can say ‘this might happen, and we’ll know how to handle it if it does.’ It’s like having a Plan A, B, C, and D – ready to put them into place when the time comes. There will probably be elements you can’t foresee, too – but if you can show the team you’re trying your best to give stability, they will find some reassurance in that. 


Part of this planning will involve trying to understand what happens when your colleague cannot or does not work any more. I have heard of people in his situation actively encouraging succession planning, so do not be surprised if the conversation goes that way. A sense that things will be looked after when they are no longer there, and that their hard work will be passed on to someone who will take care of it can feel reassuring, and may even give them the confidence to step away sooner. If they don’t bring up succession planning, you should be thinking about this behind the scenes. It is not deceitful or mean – it is going to help their team cope when they’re gone. 


And finally, remember to acknowledge the emotions that come with this. If your company can afford it, I would recommend offering grief counselling to team members and anyone else affected – including yourself. This could be individual, or in a group setting. It can be hard to see someone’s end of life played out at work, especially someone who has been a robust and impactful member of the workplace. You may also want to think about how to honour their memory in a way that feels right to the organisation.

Three resources to help with death and grief at work: 

Did you find this post interesting? For more content like this, sign-up to my newsletter, ‘Dear Katie’, where I help solve real-life messy leadership problems.

Have a leadership problem of your own? Submit it via email – – and I will answer it anonymously in a future issue.