Q&A: How do I support an employee through a health crisis?

Ankur Patel and Shelley Dorais, Ankur Patel, Director of Product Marketing, and Shelley Dorais, Director of Customer Success and Renewals at Zenefits.
Jul 14, 2022

From long COVID to major injuries, life hits us hard when we least expect it. As an employer, how do you support an employee through a health crisis like this? Ankur Patel, Director of Product Marketing at Zenefits, and Shelley Dorais, Director of Customer Success and Renewals, both recently experienced major health challenges. They learned […]

From long COVID to major injuries, life hits us hard when we least expect it. As an employer, how do you support an employee through a health crisis like this?

Ankur Patel, Director of Product Marketing at Zenefits, and Shelley Dorais, Director of Customer Success and Renewals, both recently experienced major health challenges. They learned firsthand about best practices for caring for employees when life hits them hard.

Listen in to hear their stories and their top takeaways for employers caring for employees through illness and injury.

Additional Resources:

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On this episode, you’ll hear:

  • [01:00] The personal and professional challenges of long COVID
  • [05:30] The importance of flexibility and empathy in battling illness
  • [09:45] Un-learning unhealthy work habits
  • [11:00] Supporting employees through recovery from major injuries
  • [16:00] Believing the best of people
  • [17:00] Respecting both privacy and authenticity
  • [19:00] Top takeaways for caring for employees through a health crisis
  • [23:00] Silver linings of health challenges


Shelley: Welcome to POPS, the show that shows you how to ship from human resources, paperwork to people operations for the new world of work. How? By answering one question at a time I’m Shelley Dorais, and I’m the Director of Customer Success and Renewals here at Zenefits. We’re gonna answer one question, how to support employees when life hits them.

I’m here with my friend and my colleague Ankur.

Ankur: I’m Ankur Patel. I’m here with the product marketing team at Zenefits. 

Shelley: Interesting question. We’re talking about today. How to support employees when life hits them hard because coincidentally, both of us have had some hits lately, so it’s lately.

So we wanted to do this because. Felt like XZ was very supportive in that process and wanted to share some of the things that we’ve learned along our journey. So do you wanna share your personal story with what you’ve been through in the last 

Ankur: couple years? So for me, back in early 2021, right before vaccines were available, someone in my household contracted COVID and eventually passed it to me.

And I went through that. And for the initial two, three weeks, it was definitely rough after kind of getting through that. I thought I was pretty stable. Need to find myself going through these continuous relapses over and over again. And, and they hit me hard. I’ve always been an extreme overachiever across the board, bit of a health, nut and athlete, right?

Yeah. And definitely, definitely an athlete. And from February into March by mid-March my. Body had just gone through so much that I was literally wheelchair bound and I could no longer support and bear my own weight. And there was really no explanation for it. Cause every time I went to the hospital, every time I went to doctors, most of them had no idea what to make of the situation.

And it just kind of perpetuated my feelings as well, where I felt almost trapped in my circumstance. And this just prolonged over time. And now it’s deemed as long COVID and long COVID has such a variety of symptoms. So maybe people have a relative difference in how they experience it. But for me, by June of last year, when I started physical therapy, they had assessed, I had atrophied 70% of my muscle mass.

And my vestibular exercises, which are all the balanced ones were ranging in the 80 year old category. So for somebody who is seemingly healthy, fit, all those different things, it really, really hit me hard. And not only. You know, humbled my personal life, but also my work life place, where I always thought of myself as a, a high caliber contributor, a team player.

I just couldn’t do that anymore, even though I wanted to it, it just, it wasn’t something I was able to. 

Shelley: Yeah. And I know there’s a lot to UN dig there, but in terms of work, how did that impact your work? and your ability to perform to the level that you were accustomed to or Santas was accustomed to. 

Ankur: It was extremely frustrating.

I look at myself as able to sell a narrative part of my job and be articulate in what I’m trying to communicate. And I literally could not think straight. I had so much brain fog. I had so many issues with breathing. And kind of controlling my cadence with breath when I speak. So if I a meeting, even in a five minute conversation, I felt like I run a marathon depleted and hours to recover.

So from a working standpoint, I’m pretty stubborn and hardheaded. And I always continued wanting to dive in and I just found myself being so much more limited in what I could accomplish, whether it was actually not being able to sit behind a screen all day or having the conversations that I wanted to.

And I just couldn’t partake in, or just literally not being able to think straight the concentration issues. The fogginess that kind of carried through a lot of that was just pretty 

Shelley: prominent. I know in the discussions that you and I have had, you’ve talked about how supported that you felt by your employer, which is benefits in our case, what did they do for you that, and how did they support you so that you could get through that period?

Ankur: For me, the biggest thing was the amount of flexibility and authenticity that they offered. So through benefits, like short term disability, being able to count on those, to take those as I needed and ensure financially, I was still stable to support myself through it, to allowing me to work asynchronously contribute when I can, on and off as needed and taking the time I needed and then allowing team members to step up and kind of distribute some of the work that I did.

And through it all. Really being authentic and, and empathetic, you know, the amount of care packages I got was not that I need, you know, present or anything, but just to show that, Hey, we’re thinking about you and that mental social support was amazing. And the greatest thing I would say for going through the process and, you know, I know you yourself, Had a ton of life circumstances hit you over the last two years as well.

Finding individuals like yourself, where we could have real conversations about all the ebbs and flows that we faced and really support each other to that degree where it’s almost validating that you did go through this. It was real. Not just a bad dream and you are kind of propelling yourself forward.

So even that level was really, really helpful. Can you 

Shelley: think of any particular interactions or moments that you had with a coworker or a leader during that time? That was very impactful for you? 

Ankur: My direct boss, many times in one on ones, just overemphasized the need to rest. And if we were talking about projects and if I was over zealous saying, oh yeah, I’ll take that on.

And, you know, getting super excited about certain things. He was very conservative and, and cautious about maintaining my health through that and not overwhelming me with anything that was overarching, stressful along with work, where it would impede my progress from a, a personal and help standpoint. 

Shelley: Was that surprising to you?

Ankur: Yeah. You know, for, for our culture, I don’t think it was that surprising, but from a bigger picture, I think there was elements like that. Cuz I’ve also worked in environments where the amount of flexibility I received here would not have been anywhere close to that or the empathy. And I think many times.

Humans are wired to kind of power through things just because of social circumstances and social pressure in itself. And sometimes folks just don’t understand what other folks are going through. So it’s really hard for them to relate, but here, you know, the, the amount of sympathy that I experienced in acknowledgement of everything I was going through, I think partly due.

I’d been working for about a year and a half prior to getting sick. So the team knew how I would typically perform and then seeing this drastic change it, it was pretty real to them as well. 

Shelley: I asked that question because I’ve been in my career for over 25 years now. And I’m, and there’s some old work habits that I’m not sure would’ve allowed a lot of companies to do what you experienced and that’s the flexibility and the trust and the authenticity.

Do you have any thoughts on old work habits that we’re learning through this to change and make us better employers to make us better leaders to make us better coworkers? 

Ankur: Yeah, I think the last three years in general have definitely put a spotlight on life itself. Yeah. The, the last three years have really bubbled up for so many individuals.

And in 2021 alone, when we, when you saw 48 million people quit their jobs because they didn’t feel valued or they’ve recognized, life is short. And I need to balance what I’m doing. So these themes have really become prominent and I, myself obviously had COVID as an issue, but you, yourself, you, you had a very different circumstance and had many similar overlaps.

So the biggest thing is people are always going through something behind the scenes that employers do need to be cognizant of. And approach with care and empathy. And honestly, I would love to, to hear more about everything you went through, because we had so many similarities for having such a different experience or catalyst to what caused that.

Shelley: We did. And I think that a lot of the themes that you experienced working for a good company, and a lot of the themes that you experienced with your leaders are very similar to mine. But, um, for me, I had a closed head injury back in, um, May 31st, 2020. And I was out on disability for about nine months. I like you as a very high achiever.

I had been leading teams for almost my entire career. I was used to being able to juggle many things in my life. And after my accident, it left me in a situation where my ability to perform was diminished to almost nothing. I was. Not able to be around light sound. I couldn’t be touched. Everything was just overwhelming to me.

And I couldn’t read, I couldn’t listen to music. I couldn’t watch TV. So I was really in a situation where it was me inside my head and not being able to interact with the world in really any other way. So obviously I was off work for about nine months on disability and the support that I got for at least the first six months was through other people.

And my team here at benefits, my leader, my people ops team were amazing in communicating with. My husband and my parents, because I couldn’t communicate. And the care that they showed in reaching out to those people in my life and making sure that they knew that our family was gonna be okay because I’m the primary breadwinner and our household.

And so just taking that burden off of our family to know that we care about Shelly and we know she’s gonna get through. And your family’s taken care of was a blessing that I know a lot of people don’t have. That’s definitely a takeaway that I have had that I’m blessed to work for a company that would do that once I was getting better and was able to come back to work.

That same flexibility was offered to me. When I came back, our VP of people, operations, Danny met with me. Said she you’ve given to zes for seven years and it’s our time to give back to you. So we’re gonna be flexible with you. I came back in a diminished role. I wasn’t in leadership. I was just working on special projects cuz that’s all I could handle at the time.

And they just allowed me to work on what I could do and not push me in areas where I couldn’t and slowly over time, I was able to get back to a place where I could move into my old position, but it definitely wasn’t right away. So that ability, again, to feel safe and secure in that I can work, but I can also concentrate on getting my life back and getting better, knowing that my coworkers understood what I was sort of as much as they could understood what I was going through.

But most of all wanted to support me. You 

Ankur: touched on one really critical thing there, which was evolution of your transition back into Ze. You took on a role that was more limited than what you were in previously intentionally to allow yourself to kind of ease into that transition and then basically grow back into exactly where you are today, which is the leader of an awesome organization within our organization.

And I think that’s a critical piece for anyone listening to takeaway where you just went through something. So impactful in having senior contributions for five, seven years prior as you’re literally one of, one of the most gushed about people in this organization when, when I started and, and I would say, Hey, I’m talking to Shelly.

People would just light up. So your impact is definitely felt. And it’s definitely amazing to see the reciprocation there from the company. 

Shelley: I said it earlier, but I’ll say it again. I know that not everybody is fortunate enough to work for a company that sees life that way. But if we’re talking about takeaways and things that we can do to help other companies get better is to remember that.

Almost everybody gets up every day wanting to do the best that they can. Like, I don’t know anybody who gets up and says, I’m gonna be bad at my job today. Everybody wants to do a good job, but there are always people who are going through something that’s gonna take away from their ability to be their best and just to have open conversations and be authentic.

We’ve said that word a lot today. Be authentic with what’s going on and as leaders try and figure out creative ways to be flexible. And to trust to be able to do this, you have to trust the 98, 90 9% of people that are earnestly, trying to do a good job and not run your business by the one or 2% of people may or may not be trying to take advantage of you.

And so I think that’s an important takeaway as well. 

Ankur: I think that’s spot on and, and I would actually add a third one to that where it’s really just maintaining the individual’s privacy. Based on what they want. And I know for myself, I love now speaking and becoming an advocate for any long haulers. And, you know, I, I take the circumstance.

I faced as an opportunity to just communicate how hard I was hit. And even after a year and a half now, how I’m still at points, crawling myself out of a hole that was dug so deep. And I, I know not all individuals. Want that someone heavier privacy, which is extremely okay. And employers have to be respectful on both ends of the spectrum and be able to allow those individuals to communicate and speak to their ailments and what they went through as they need to, whether it’s in a open forum or it’s a one on one with a leader or the head of people, operations.

Shelley: Yeah, I think that’s important because you and I, today aren’t talking about compliance. There are compliance issues that every company has to make decisions on. And a lot of that has to do with privacy. But what we’re talking about here is just the human interactions that people have. And. For me, I was like, you, I wanted to talk about this to anybody who wanted to talk about it.

It’s I have learned, I cannot believe how many people have had concussions and long term repercussions from having a concussion that they didn’t understand. And nobody understood. So I’m like you, anybody who wants to talk to me about that? I will, because. I think I can help people. And so I’ve always been open and told everybody from the very beginning.

I’ll take all the thoughts and prayers that I can get. So tell anybody that you want to about me, but not everybody’s like that. Like you said, so obviously there are concerns and things to think about for that, but yeah, these are definitely some of the things that we’ve learned as people and coworkers going through this.

So what do you think some of our. Takeaways are on core. Like if we were both to step back and say, here are the three or four things that we learned here are the three or four things we want other people to take away from our experiences, what would they be? 

Ankur: The first thing is allowing for open conversations through all circumstances and really just curating a nurturing environment.

We have had very significantly impactful. Type of experiences over the last two years, but that’s, that’s a relative term. So everyone, every human being in your workforce is going through something at some point in time and allowing each individual to share their experiences and recognizing that personal life does flow into work life and vice versa, and it impacts each other and just curating an environment that.

Authentic and safe to speak in different forums, whether it’s individual, whether it’s broad spectrum, where people just feel comfortable without judgment, being able to, to bring their true self to the table, no matter what they’re going through. And I’d say another piece to that is managing to the 98% of folks and not the quote, unquote, 2% of bad apples out there.

A lot of times, uh, as leaders within an organization, we fear the negative circumstances and we may build rules in an architecture that caters more towards the 2% that may take advantage of a situation versus the majority who are going to do their best each and every day. And a perfect example of this was just over the last three years.

When a lot of organizations had to go into this distributed workforce, there was a lot of hesitation. Initially, even though it was a forcing function where people thought are my people gonna be productive anymore, or they just gonna sit around at home. And a ton of data is now come out three years later to show people are actually more productive.

So it’s the complete opposite of what we would’ve assumed. Given a more lenient circumstance. But just reinforces that the majority of folks want to do a good job. They wanna contribute. They wanna propel your mission forward. And I’d say the third piece is to really just maintain the individual privacy.

That’s relative to each person. You, you talked about how we’re not diving into compliance, but there are, you know, regulatory pieces. To, to anyone’s story and background and just the privacy that comes with that. But it is all relative. I love speaking about my long haul experience. My silver lining is to become a patient advocate just to shed light on, you know, Hey, you thought I was this great person and look how impacted I was by something that was initially deemed to just be flulike.

So allow individuals to express. To whatever degree they feel safe and comfortable doing and maintaining the outlets that would allow for that as 

Shelley: well. I wanna end on a positive note. You talked about silver linings and we talk about that as friends now we’ve become friends and, and we share. Things about our experiences that uplift us even today.

So I wanna talk about silver linings here for a minute. One is new friendships. I think that I know I’ve developed new friendships with people who have gone through similar things that I appreciate. It’s I’ve heard it called the friends you never expected to have because of things you’ve been through, but that’s definitely a silver lining.

And for me as a leader, it’s made me. More understanding and more sensitive to people in general. And it’s allowed me to step back and try and live in the moment as opposed to rushing through life and to step back and really acknowledge that sometimes life is hard. How can I listen? How can I be helpful?

How can I be a friend and advocate for you? And I don’t think I would’ve gotten there in life. Unless I had been through what I had gone through. So definitely a silver lining there it’s been tough. What both of us have been through has been hard, but I think we both step away seeing there are things that we’ve gained that has made us better people.

Do you have questions for us? Click the link in the show notes, or if you’ve got other ideas and feedback about our show? Send them to [email protected]

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Every week, we share the decisions, struggles, and successes for keeping up with an evolving workforce and a changing workplace. No matter if you’ve been in HR or are just getting started, this combination of transformational stories with actionable ideas, as well as context on hot issues, keeps you up-to-date while answering the questions you didn’t even know you had.

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