• October 1, 2014

Just What the Doctor Ordered

After serving as a chairman on several campuses, I have come to realize that a key part of the job, especially in large departments, is knowing how to deal with illness. In a department of, say, 50 professors and 5 office staff members, a minimum of 3 or 4 people, and some of their close friends and relatives, are going to be seriously ill during any given month.

With a little awareness, knowledge, and sympathy, department heads can minimize the many dilemmas posed by faculty health problems.

The first requirement for dealing with any problem is being aware of its existence. Most faculty members don't see more than a small portion of the health picture in a department, because sick people don't normally share their health troubles with anyone but the department head and their closest colleagues. When I first became a chairman many years ago, I was unprepared for the sheer number of illnesses that arose.

I knew from my own teaching that students often justified late papers and poor test performance with the excuse of illness or the death of a grandparent. Like most teachers I was reasonably skeptical of such claims, but a large number of them turned out to be true. When faculty or staff members reported various health problems, I always felt that their claims were truthful, despite the occasional use of an illness by a teacher or office worker to justify burnout and lackluster performance.

The slippage caused by illness among department members and their families is considerable. Medical problems usually begin weeks or months before sick leaves do, and the aftereffects linger long after the leaves are over. Some health problems are not covered by sick leaves at all.

People dealing with illness are understandably distracted from their tasks, no matter how much they may claim to be fully in control. They are likely to let important departmental matters go unattended. For department heads, anticipating the resulting problems is an important follow-up to being aware of the illnesses.

The following incidents are a sample of some of the problems that I have experienced as a chairman in different departments, with personal details omitted to protect confidentiality:

  • A faculty member, worried about a seriously ill child, writes a report that needs much more than the usual amount of copy-editing and proofreading. The editing work has to be done by a different faculty member to ensure accuracy.
  • A faculty member whose departmental service has always been excellent is diagnosed with a serious health problem in the middle of the spring semester. The professor grows more distracted as the problem moves toward a critical stage, and can't always be counted upon to concentrate on the details of important committee work. Still, the professor insists on finishing out the semester. Colleagues, wanting to help, end up with more than their usual share of work and committee tasks.
  • During the serious illness of a parent over several months, a very valuable and energetic staff member struggles to put in some extra hours necessary during our busy times, has to request leave from work more often than usual, stops attending many departmental social events, and finally resigns much sooner than expected in order to devote more time to tending the parent.
  • A temporary office worker is diagnosed with a serious chronic disease in the middle of a semester but is able to continue working. The office staff members become uncharacteristically moody and anxious because of their sympathy for the worker and concern about her health, and their anxiety sometimes affects office relations with faculty members and students as well as one another.

Any chairman of a large department can give examples of courage and determination on the part of ill colleagues, and of care and support on the part of co-workers. Most chairmen can also give many examples of mistakes, misapprehensions, erratic behavior, and sudden angry outbursts from ill, distracted, or stressed out faculty members.

Sometimes administrators can monitor the work of afflicted faculty or staff members, or appoint temporary replacements. Other times, we may not be able to cover the gaps. So long as an administrator is aware that many such events will happen during the academic year, he or she can start to make some alternative operating plans, however vague or imperfect.

The second requirement for dealing with illness in a department is knowledge. Most administrators (with the exception of those in medical schools) are not doctors and should obviously not offer detailed medical advice. But it helps to have some knowledge of common serious ailments and the mental and physical states that can result from those illnesses. At best, such knowledge might help you make things easier for the affected department member; at the very least, it could help you avoid making embarrassing comments or asking intrusive questions.

The other kind of knowledge that is very useful is a basic understanding of the institution's sick-leave and reasonable-accommodation policies. As a chairman, just as you should not give out medical advice, you should leave the details of campus health policies to the human-resources office. But if you know the basic requirements for sick leave, you can at least suggest that faculty members go to that office when appropriate.

The third, and most important, requirement for dealing with illnesses is sympathy. That might seem obvious, but often the worries, pressures, and deadlines involved in running a department prevent administrators from fully showing the sympathy that they may feel. As T.E. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the back of a commander's mind is often not very pretty. That's because the commander is, of necessity, usually concerned with technical rather than with human issues.

When I first became a chairman, I was so worried about making sure that the department's operations could continue in the face of various health problems that I had little time left for the sick people themselves. Unlike Mrs. Freeman in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," who displays an unholy interest in health problems and abnormalities, I lack a natural curiosity about such things. But with maturity, I have learned to set aside my managerial role and listen carefully and sympathetically when a faculty member tells me the details of an illness.

On a personal level, witnessing the distress of so many other people means that I no longer simply assume that such things will only happen to others. Moreover, in retrospect, I now understand that as chairman, I have been similarly distracted by my own, or my family's, health problems without fully realizing it, and that I too have benefited from my colleagues' tacit understanding and assistance while I continued to think that my work was unaffected.

We really are all on the long day's journey into night. Everyone is on the night train, and a high rate of publication or superior teaching skills are, unfortunately, no protection from that fact. Some will simply get off the train sooner than others. I have learned from the positive attitudes of many teachers confronting unpleasant health problems, and have felt admiration for those colleagues who inevitably volunteer to take up the slack.

The result of all of this experience is that when sick and stressed faculty members "lose it" and take out their frustrations on the department or on me, I am much more tolerant than I might have been many years ago. I now know that a good 95 percent of the time, a colleague's irritation is owing more to his or her health problems -- or, it must be added, to related relationship or economic woes -- than to any difficulty in the work environment. Usually faculty members are apologetic as soon as they return to their true selves.

Administrators cannot overlook work aberrations caused by health problems, especially when students are suffering from erratic teaching or colleagues are being asked to do someone else's work over an extended period of time. But we can be sensitive and aware before we criticize. We can actually care about the health and recovery of our colleagues and wish them the best. We can take as much pressure as possible off of the sick person.

In short, an administrator can become a mensch, a little less committed to pushing forward at any price and a little more committed to our common humanity. A sick person is not a problem, but a person. A simple phone call to someone in the hospital or some flowers sent by the department can go a long way, if such gestures spring from genuine concern.

I have no advice to offer on keeping your faculty members healthy. But I do have a prescription for how to deal with their many illnesses: A bit of awareness, knowledge, and sympathy on the part of the chairman can do wonders to make any department seem less like a walking hospital and more like the healthy workplace that it ideally should be.

Joseph Kay is the pseudonym of the chairman of an English department at a Southern university.

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