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HR And The Terminal Illness Conversation

I was pretty early into my HR career when I had my first terminal illness conversation, the employee had a degenerative illness that he understood would take away his independence and eventually his life – which it did on both counts. Chances are as an HR practitioner you’ll most likely have at least one of these conversations in your career, or at the very least be aware of this happening. I wanted to share my experience, as it might help prepare you in some small way.

Neil was the employee's name, he was well-liked and respected, a family man, and while I didn’t know him, what I knew of him was that he was a genuine person. So I received a meeting invite and was sitting across the table from him, and he tells me quite frankly he’s dying, and that in the very near future the disease will take everything bar his mind, and eventually take his life. He will rely on his wife and family to care for him fully, feeding, bathing, mobility, and toileting.

This was pretty confronting to hear, I’m sitting there not knowing how to act or what to say. Neil was incredibly strong, he simply said that he didn’t want sympathy, he’d been through the anger and grief that he wouldn’t get to live his life the way he intended and that he would die relatively shortly but only after being a burden on his family. What he wanted from me was information on the life insurance and salary continuance insurance that the company offered all employees as a benefit.

Neil passed away four or five years after that conversation, there was a local article about his passing and the way he lived the final years of his life. It was just bad luck really, it was a genetic disease that no one could do anything about, nor could Neil have done anything to avoid it. I didn’t know Neil, I basically had one half-hour conversation with him in person, then a few email exchanges while providing the information he asked for. He certainly left an impression on me, with the strength he faced his mortality.

So the takeaway message if you’re faced with a similar situation, you’re in HR, there is nothing that you can do in any meaningful way. They are going to die, prior to seeing you they would have seen doctors, talked with their family and loved one, grieved, and been angry about their shorted future. Have the conversation and provide them the HR advice that you can, and then go home and hug your family and be grateful.

By Brendan Lys

Operating at the intersection of Human Resources and Data Science, I leverage extensive specialist experience within Human Resources, with the methodologies and approaches of Data Science. This focus on the discovery of actionable insights from data, has been applied to areas such as: remuneration & benefits, workforce planning, recruitment, health & safety, diversity, and training. But what does the application of data science to HR challenges and opportunities actually look like. Within an HR framework the data we work with typically comes directly from our HRMIS, an advantage of using data science methodologies is that we can bring in additional data either held within the organization or from external sources - data which is out of reach from a pure HR analytics approach. Consider for example position descriptions, these contain a wealth of data that we typically ignore as its not in a analysis ready format. A side project I'm working on currently (April 2019) is using text mining on job descriptions to provide insights into which job family the position may fit into. The insights of my work have been enjoyed by organizations across a diversity of sectors including: Government (Australia and New Zealand), ASX and NZX listed companies, utilities, not for profit and higher education.

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