What to do when you fall ill

Written by
Lucy Whitehall

01 Aug 2017

01 Aug 2017 • by Lucy Whitehall

When we think of a leader conceptually, we think of a strong and stoic figure who we turn to in a crisis. Whether it’s making tough decisions – like putting Article 50 into action – or simply stepping up to comfort and reassure people, it's leaders who we look towards when the going gets tough to take charge and push us forwards in times of adversity. 

However, even when at the top of their game, leaders are still only human. This means that, as a leader, despite your best efforts, you can still fall victim to various illnesses like anyone else. 

Unfortunately, when a leader shows a more vulnerable side and succumbs to illnesses, colleagues and peers can sometimes have a tendency to fall into panic – like when Hilary Clinton collapsed during her presidential campaign, or when the Queen of England came down with a cold.

Falling ill is inevitable at one stage or another. So how can you ensure your team can cope effectively while you take time off to rest and recover?

How will your illness impact your team?

As a leader, if you must step down to take time to recover, the impact on your followers can be significant: 

1)    Low morale – Although you could be largely functional in your role, you’re also positioned as key decision maker for the organisation and thus become vital to maintaining morale through your positions as a figurehead. When you’re the ‘embodiment’ of the company, it becomes easy to understand why falling ill can make your followers feel lacklustre. This can result in low morale across an entire group as they worry about the health of their leader. Even when a flatter structure is adopted, if the ‘main person’ is felled, it can cause a loss of purpose, as the beacon has been temporarily dimmed.

2)    Execution problems – Leaders play a vital role in making things happen and executing key business decisions which push the company forwards. If you’re in charge of a team, and end up out of action, this process can grind to a halt. This can have huge repercussions for organisations: a palpable gap in the execution process can cause financial pressures and thus upset the progression of an organisation as a whole. Without a designated person present to approve decisions and move things up the pipeline towards execution, organisations can find themselves struggling to keep things moving in a productive manner. 

3)    Uncertainty – Leaders are there to provide momentum, giving their followers a focus point. When you’re absent or sick, it can create a level of uncertainty (both internally and externally, for example, in shareholder confidence): people not only worry about the direction of the business, they also worry about the long-term repercussions if the ailment becomes a long-term issue. What will happen in terms of business growth if you’re incapacitated for an extended period? Who will step up to the helm? Where does the future of the organisation lie? Uncertainty can lead to anxiety and disorganisation – two repercussions which understandably makes an unhealthy leader seem unappealing. 

Empower your employees

In today’s professional sphere, where remote working arrangements and flexible hours are commonplace, as a leader you no longer need to be reliant on creating a strong physical presence to command or keep things running smoothly. 

When commanding a team, it’s in your best interest to empower your employees. More often than not, this is achieved by giving opportunities and experience to employees who are less seasoned: in order to help them develop and grow. This not only helps to nurture an organisation, it acts as a failsafe to protect the business in instances when as a leader you must step aside to focus on your own wellbeing. If we are constantly teaching our employees to grow, then we do not have to worry about people having to ‘step up’ and fill our shoes or decision making responsibilities when we’re unwell (and vice versa).  

Although you must make key decisions while in a leadership role, you rarely make them alone. Much of leadership comes from successful delegation and the over-seeing of decisions. This is facilitated not necessarily by leading on all organisational tasks, but instead by sharing decision making and key strategic movements with the core team in which we work.

If this kind of approach to leadership is a regular occurrence, and those of you in power regularly allow the people who work closely with you to share our responsibilities, there should be no concerns when you take time away from your team to recover your health. There’s no truer sign of a strong leader than the ability to let those you are leading take over, and tackle the tasks they’ve been set accordingly without interference.