My Disabled Colleague Is Struggling at Work. Am I Responsible for Her Deva?

I have a co-worker with a rare, degenerative neurological disorder. For a decade, her decline was slow. But in the past five years, she has experienced a more rapid deterioration in both cognitive and physical capabilities. She is now struggling with her work in almost every way. The company makes every accommodation possible — deadlines are extended, errors forgiven and excuses entertained. We are a small company with limited employees, but because of her mostly pleasant demeanor and length of service, we have all tried to pitch in over the years and help in different ways.

Historically, the help we gave was simple — make a copy, grab a file, assist her to her car, etc. Recently the demands are more frequent, intense and even personal. As her mobility has become more limited, she has confined herself to her office, leaving only to make trips to the restroom. Now, urinary and fecal incontinence are also an issue. Although she uses specialized products, there are still frequent (nearly daily) accidents that require cleanup of her surroundings and sometimes even herself.

We all assist her when asked but are questioning if it is appropriate for us to continue to do so. It is certainly not part of our job responsibilities nor have we been trained properly on what to do. We are all wondering whether this situation has crossed a line. We’re concerned that our actions are enabling her to work when she shouldn’t be doing so. What should we do? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

Your company was right to make reasonable accommodations as your colleague’s health started to decline. (For firms with 15 or more employees, reasonable accommodations for those who can still perform the essential functions of their jobs are also legally required.) As Katherine Macfarlane, an expert in disability accommodations and a faculty member at the Syracuse University College of Law, pointed out to me, this isn’t such a special demand: We accommodate the idiosyncrasies of our colleagues all the time. And certainly your office seems to have made more accommodations than many would.

Where your managers fall short, though, is that they haven’t recalibrated to shifting realities and are making you and your colleagues bear much of the costs of their policy. Expecting you to clean up the results of incontinence is neither reasonable nor acceptable.

When I discussed your situation with Macfarlane, she pointed out that people with disabilities may hold on to a position because they need the health care benefits that come with it — a consequence of the way health care is so often tied to a job in the United States. The question is whether a role could be found for her that uses her skills and can perhaps be carried on from home, while maintaining her coverage; severance would be only a last resort. Managers would do well to consult with your colleague to figure out ways of accommodating her limitations without imposing a hardship on other employees. (They can also consult with the Job Accommodation Network.) The goal, simply, should be to find an outcome that’s attentive to her health and dignity, but mindful, too, of the health and dignity of others in the workplace.

A Bonus Question

My father was adopted and has never known the identity of his birth mother. When, as a child, I asked my father whether he wanted to find his birth mother, he gave a firm no; my grandmother, the woman who raised him, was his real mother, and that was good enough for him. When I’ve brought it up again as an adult, he has gone back and forth but usually still arrives at “no.” In a vulnerable and perceptive admission, he said he fears being rejected again.

I would like to find and possibly meet and talk with my biological grandmother and learn her story. Saying this scares me, too, but aside from my emotional hesitation, there is the ethical piece. Would it be wrong for me to cut out the middleman, so to speak, and pursue her in spite of my dad’s expressed hesitation? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

Your father is entitled to his choice, and you’re entitled to yours. It would be best to tell him that you’re going to go looking for your grandmother and that you will respect his wishes by telling him nothing about what you find out, unless he asks. You’re not asking his permission; you’re keeping him informed. But proceed as sensitively as you can. You don’t want to strain the family ties you already have.

It’s possible that your grandmother — assuming she’s alive and you’re able to find her — will make it plain that she doesn’t want contact with you; if so, you should respect her privacy. Otherwise you’ll have to inform her about your agreement with your father. That doesn’t mean you can’t tell her things about him, if she wants to hear them. The aim is to protect your father from the consequences of your decision without relinquishing your right to make it.

Readers Respond

Last week’s question was from a reader whose mother is a hoarder, and whose behavior might impact the health of her mother’s husband, who has been diagnosed with cancer. She wrote: “My mother and I have a strained relationship because of her myriad mental-health challenges.… In my mother’s current large home, every room and closet, every tabletop and surface — every single area — is bursting with piles of items. … The hoarding and disorganization are becoming alarming to me because I fear it will impede his care and cause major stress if they need to sell the home for any reason. … I’ve thought about sending her books about decluttering or mentioning that we should tackle rooms together when I am there. But part of me feels as if it’s not my responsibility, and part of me is aware that she most likely won’t be receptive to the idea that this is an issue she needs to address. Please help!”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Like so many quandaries, yours involves both empirical and moral considerations. Hoarding disorder is a condition recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.), and, as in your mother’s case, it is frequently associated with other psychiatric problems. … You should certainly look into contacting a mental-health professional. And, however much she resists it, you ought to broach the topic with your mother directly. Encourage her to recognize that she has a problem and that her hoarding may pose a risk to your stepfather’s well-being and to her own. Tell her that there are forms of therapy that might help manage it. Though she won’t be grateful, you’ll have done right by her. ” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

As a hoarder myself — but perhaps one with slightly more self-awareness than the mother of the original writer, and one who has made multiple attempts at therapy — I wholeheartedly agree with how the Ethicist responded. I will say that my own progress with at least keeping my house tidier typically has come when I am able to see that my clutter puts others at risk. For me, it was possible to “contain my clutter” to a few areas where it doesn’t impact other people as much. My mess is still mortifying to me, and the original writer should try to remember that her mother might be dealing with massive amounts of shame and could appreciate a bit of empathy. Kate

I was raised by two hoarders; being products of the Great Depression, every item in the home was considered to have some intrinsic value or potential usefulness. The environment was one of utter chaos, disorder and unfortunately filth. As a child I attempted to clean and order small parts of it only to have my efforts undone. And then, as the writer fears, my parents died within a year of each other, leaving me this catastrophe. I did resent the cleanup. It wasn’t my responsibility. I knew that hurt and anger were not the legacy that my parents wanted to leave. I cannot advise this writer; I can only say that I wish I had joined my parents before their death so we as a family could have resolved the situation with more sensitivity and respect for all our feelings. — Pauline

My mother is also a hoarder. Part of it seems to come from a complicated childhood of scarcity; part of it seems to be a compulsion to establish “I’m here!” I think my mother believes that her hoarding validates her being. Hence, my attempts to help have not been well received. My best advice: Stay in a hotel or Airbnb when you visit and let her be. Lisa

About 90 percent of the time, I agree with the Ethicist’s advice, but this response was, in large measure, wrongheaded. Many people love collecting. Many of the items don’t make sense to the average person, but they can fuel a lifetime of satisfaction for the individual. Let the person collect or hoard, then deal with it when they die. I have seen folks lose their desire to live after family members threw away their collection of old matchboxes, cereal boxes, Beanie Babies, small toy dogs and other related “junk.” Dennis

When a person won’t get rid of items from a deceased loved one, it’s possible they’re afraid they’ll lose memories associated with that person. (My dad downsized and moved across the state but brought all of my deceased mom’s belongings with him.) To ask someone to declutter when another loved one is ill just adds emotionally charged stress. The letter writer should consider asking her mother if the two of them could look through some of those things in order to make a safer environment for her stepdad, and choose part of those items worth keeping. That way her mother can keep the most precious things, while helping keep her husband safe. Beth

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